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Besa Masaiti, 21, a national chess champion from Botswana and the ICAPE graduate assistant, has a passion for giving back to the world

“Who wants to learn how to play chess?”

Besa Masaiti smiling for the camera, sitting in front of a chessboard
Besa Masaiti, who played in her first professional chess tournament at age 11, works as the graduate assistant at Lehigh's International Center for Academic and Professional English.

That was the question a teacher asked Besa Masaiti and her classmates during a sixth grade class in her home country of Botswana in 2013. Masaiti raised her hand, joining the school’s new chess club, unaware that she was taking the first steps toward a professional chess career that would bring her international recognition.

The chess prodigy, then 11, began her professional career that same year with her first tournament, playing in the prestigious Mater Spei Chess Festival. She won a bronze medal, becoming a junior national champion. Standing at the podium with her fellow winners, the announcer said, “This is the future of chess. These girls will be representing their country.”

He was right. Masaiti has been lauded as one of Botswana’s greatest chess players. She was named Botswana Junior Sports Woman of the Year in 2019, and the following year became the Botswana Chess National Women's Champion. She has traveled all over the world, competing in numerous chess tournaments and events on behalf of her country.

Masaiti, now 21, is pursuing a master's degree in financial engineering at Lehigh University, and works as the graduate assistant for Lehigh’s International Center for Academic and Professional English (ICAPE). She still plays chess, and has a passion for teaching and helping others, and making a positive impact on the world.

“It is my heart's desire for my life's journey to give encouragement and hope to all people, and give them courage to go for their dreams and make a definite positive impact on the world,” Masaiti said.

Helping Fellow Lehigh Students

ICAPE helps multilingual speakers of English improve their communication skills with flexible, student-focused program options that are grounded in evidence-based practice and connected to the resources of the larger university community.

“I help with students – particularly international students – who are struggling with improving their English, and I also help scholars under the StepUp Intensive English program in making sure they transition well into Lehigh University,” Masaiti said.

Ashley Murphy, Assistant Director at ICAPE, said she was impressed not only by Masaiti’s chess career accomplishments, but also at her experience in tutoring and teaching. Masaiti has tutored in both chess and the English language for years, both in Botswana and at Texas Tech University, where she studied before coming to Lehigh in August.

“As I got to know her, I discovered that part of the reason she was drawn to teaching positions was because she has a drive to give back to the world,” Murphy said. “We in ICAPE are very happy she’s on our team, and I’m excited to see how far she will go in the future.”

From Chess to Academic Success

Masaiti started attending Texas Tech in 2020 after becoming the first professional chess player to earn a Merit Based Elite Scholarship from the Botswana National Sports Commission. After obtaining her bachelor's degree in economics, with minors in mathematics and actuarial science, she came to Lehigh in August to pursue her master’s degree.

Since early in her youth, Masaiti’s success at chess made her realize she wanted to achieve success in academics as well. She learned to apply strategic elements of chess – such as critical thinking, in-depth analysis, and time management – into her studies.

It also led her to become an outspoken advocate for the need to balance academics and extracurricular activities, and instilled in her a desire to help others achieve similar success. A devout Christian, she believes God gave her the skills in part so she could help make a difference in the lives of others.

“Chess has helped build me to be the global citizen that I am and expose me to different experiences, from which I’m able to interact with different people with different backgrounds,” she said.

Starting Her Own Chess Tournament

One of the ways Masaiti has given back to the world was by helping create a new chess tournament in Botswana. Many girls and young women in her home country don’t have the financial resources to travel to other countries for international tournaments, so she sought to establish one where they could compete for a title closer to home.

The inaugural Besa Masaiti WIM Norm Chess Championship was held last month in Masaiti’s hometown of Gaborone. Masaiti raised funds for the event and organized the tournament, with help from her father Charles Masaiti, who helped coach and mentor Besa in chess in her youth and has worked professionally in organizing chess tournaments.

“Chess has done so much for me; it opened opportunities for me to come to the U.S., which led me to Lehigh University,” Besa said. “I wanted young girls and women back home to have the opportunity to fight for a title play with national players, and have a chance to pursue their dreams like I have.”