Building in the labs, on the field
Zoungrana balances between mechanical engineering and the rigors of Harvard football
Bernard Zoungrana’s uncle had a saying: “Do good by doing good.” Zoungrana, S.B. ‘24, wasn’t sure how to do that until the summer before his senior year at Brunswick School in Connecticut. While considering what he might want to study in college, Zoungrana looked around and had an epiphany.
“Summer is the time when everything is beautiful,” Zoungrana said. “You look at nature, and you’re happy because you don’t have any work to do. I was hanging out with my family, looking at the world, and realized it was an amazing, beautiful place, and I really want this to be a beautiful place for as long as possible. If I could find a passion that really was bigger than myself, it’d be easier to stick with it and push myself to keep working harder.”
Zoungrana arrived at Harvard planning to study environmental science and engineering, but his plans soon changed. His introductory environmental science courses focused on topics like soil and air testing – important subjects, but not quite what he wanted. He was more interested in energy storage and carbon capture, and he wanted to build machines.
“I was told mechanical engineering might be a better fit for me, so I started doing that,” he said. “I think I made the right choice, because I really like the hands-on aspects and all the building I get to do. Being at the Science and Engineering Complex is one of the coolest things ever. Being exposed to all the things I can use, it’s like playland for a young adult.”
Now, Zoungrana splits his time between pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the football field. He’s a wide receiver for the Crimson, who host Yale on Saturday in their annual rendition of a Game that began almost 150 years ago.
“When problem sets are keeping you up late but you have early-morning lifting sessions, you have to figure it out,” Zoungrana said. “I’m definitely really enjoying it.”
Over his first three years, Zoungrana has used his mechanical engineering skills both on campus and beyond. As part of the Greywater Partners climate advocacy student group, he’s proposed a number of climate-conscious changes on campus: bringing in reverse vending machines to provide Crimson Cash for recycling; improving Harvard’s electric bus fleet; and using stationary bikes and rowing machines at campus gymnasiums to manually generate electric power.
“The goal is to try to help the school reach net zero carbon emissions,” he said.
Outside of campus, he’s had a number of internships over his three years. At consulting and construction management firm TRC Companies, he helped get permits to build an offshore wind farm. He also researched vehicle-to-grid integration, which helps electric vehicle fleets time their charging cycles to when grid rates are lower.
“That was one of the internships where I actually felt like I had an impact,” he said. “I was able to attend a solar conference and spoke to a number of manufacturers and providers. I was really lucky to be part of their project leadership training and learn what you have to know in order to get a project from start to finish.”
Having had one positive experience interning for a consulting company, Zoungrana spent this past summer as a sophomore business analyst for McKinsey & Company. Working for one of the largest consulting firms in the world taught Zoungrana how to scale sustainability efforts for much larger companies and customers.
“If you’re talking to the biggest leaders, have the biggest voices and can actually create consumer decisions, that’s how you have the biggest impact,” Zoungrana said.
Had it not been for his academic abilities, Bernard Zoungrana’s football career might’ve ended in high school. A wrist injury cost him his entire junior year, severely reducing his opportunities to get scouted and recruited. Luckily, one of his coaches at Brunswick School got him on Harvard’s radar, giving Zoungrana the opportunity to walk onto the team if he was admitted.
Zoungrana’s football experiences have changed dramatically in his three years here. The pandemic canceled the 2020 season entirely, and last year’s return to in-person classes came with many COVID-19 restrictions and requirements. It’s only this year that he’s gotten a fall season resembling what he imagined when he was a high school student-athlete, and he wants to enjoy every moment of it.
“Everyone here is having fun, but we’re also all competing every day, and treating it like our shot,” he said. “Being on the football team, the number of people on the team gives you a large group that you feel like you’re involved with and going through everything together. It keeps you focused, in line and motivated, and definitely keeps you moving around.“