Up until Grade 10 Joseph Wandile Kahn was, as he puts it, “quite unremarkable.” This judgement may seem harsh, but considering that it comes from a future Harvard graduate and the 2013 World Debating Champion, it’s an intriguing observation. A brief look over his 19-year life story reveals a number of significant experiences that have coloured his intellectual imagination and understanding of what it means to become remarkable.
Joseph was born in Johannesburg to activist parents who were respectively involved in furthering the cause of the ANC and deracialising the South African education system. From a young age then he already understood the importance of working toward something bigger than oneself. After his father took up an academic post at the University of Cape Town the family moved to Scarborough and Joseph began attending Bishops Preparatory School.
At a very young age his parents divorced, but reflecting on this experience he is filled more with gratitude than regret. He got to know the absolute best of both parents and explains that in relationships partners tend to moderate certain features of themselves to be more compatible with the other. Growing up in two different households, therefore, allowed him to grasp the true essence of each parent.
After some unremarkable years at Bishops Prep his final year saw him set his first serious goal. He realised his family wouldn’t be able to afford the full tuition for Bishops College so all his effort went into performing academically and it paid off when he was awarded the Theron Scholarship. At Bishops College he was introduced to public speaking and managed to get a place in the national public speaking team bound for the world championships in Australia in his Grade 10 year. He recounts, “I actually came 11th and someone in the team pulled out so I [got] a lucky shot.”
In the individual debating category he attained 65th place. He didn’t fare too badly in the impromptu speech, persuasive speaking and interpretive reading categories and managed a position of 27th overall. However, his rankings weren’t top of mind but rather meeting people from around the world who were doing incredible things. These were boys and girls his age who had already published books, started political organisations, owned companies and had patents to their name. Despite them being “exceptional and in many cases far more intelligent than I perceive myself to be,” he realised that “they weren’t actually geniuses relative to me.” Instead the impression they made had more to do with the attitude they had and what they believed they could achieve.
They were all going off to universities like Harvard, Oxford and Yale. So by the time he returned from Australia – it was April 2011 and he was 15 – he set his sights on joining the Ivy League. Having experienced such a complete mind shift he decided it was also time to be significant in his own life and in the community around him.
For the rest of that year up until Matric he did a number of remarkable things. He launched an initiative, the Bishops Starfish Connection through which Bishops College together with 14 other Western Cape schools raised about R70 000. Joseph is quick to confess that it was not a ploy to get the CEO of the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, Anthony Farr, who was also a co-founder of the Starfish Greathearts Foundation, to notice him. His spare time was also devoted to studying for and writing SATs; applying to Harvard College, the University of Cape Town and the Allan Gray Fellowship opportunity; as well as preparing for and competing in debating competitions in Turkey, Thailand and Bratislava, Slovakia.
And as though that wasn’t enough he also joined a friend in developing a low-cost and up-cycled fire extinguisher. They wanted to make a cost-effective tool for combatting shack fires in South Africa and the finished product, at a cost of about R7,50, won them a gold medal at the National Science Expo. At this time they are in the process of developing appropriate strategies for taking this up-cycled fire extinguisher to market.
In less than three years Joseph managed to turn his “quite unremarkable” life into one filled with significant achievements. His final year at school included highlights such as the title of World Individual Debating Champion 2013, admission to study at UCT, acceptance as a Candidate Allan Gray Fellow and, the cherry on top, a call on 13 December 2013 to confirm his early acceptance into Harvard College.
While applying to the Allan Gray Fellowship he was under the impression that it was limited to South Africa. He figured that should his Harvard application fail, there was still “an exceptional community that he could join in South Africa [but I’ve] ended up having the best of both worlds.” Joseph will be joining the programme as part of an international cohort of Candidate Allan Gray Fellows and while his term at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation has only just begun, he’s already exhibiting traits that make the organisation proud, including being the only first year Candidate Fellow to make the Final 10 pitches of the Jamboree. With an established record of intellectual achievement, an ability to see the unseen, challenge the status quo and suggest that things could be done differently, there’s no guessing where Joseph Kahn’s Intellectual Imagination might still take him.
Written by Alexa Anthonie.