Besa Masaiti, a Lehigh financial engineering graduate student, poses for a chess portrait on Feb. 18, 2024. Masaiti won the National Chess Championship and continues to be an inspiration to the future generation of women's chess players. (Yusef Kenneh/B&W Staff)

Engineer by day, chess champion by night


Besa Masaiti, ‘25G, has been playing chess since she was 11 years old. When the former Botswana Chess Federation president, who doubled as a teacher at Masati’s future high school, came into her classroom asking if anyone wanted to learn to play, her chess career commenced. 

Since then, she hasn’t stopped playing. Masaiti’s father played chess when he was young, and he became her and her younger brother’s coach in their early stages. 

“(My father) is someone who is a visionary when he sees potential,” Masaiti said. “He wanted to cultivate that and make sure it got nurtured enough to become something powerful, something life-changing and impactful.” 

Besa Masaiti competes in a game of chess. Masaiti is a Lehigh financial engineering graduate student who continues to be an inspiration to the future generation of women’s chess players. (Yusef Kenneh/B&W Staff)

Masaiti is now the highest-ranked female chess player in her home country, Botswana, and was the first recipient of a university chess scholarship. 

At 15 years old, Masaiti’s mother, a managing director at a foreign currency exchange brokerage, began showing her books about trading. One day, she sat her down to watch a video about financial engineering and she soon decided she’d pursue a similar career path when she would go to university. 

“My country has a free education policy,” Masaiti said. “So there are students who can go to school in our country, like at the University of Botswana, and then there’s an allotment for exceptional students to study abroad at any school they want. There’s a portion for academically excelling students, and then one for those who do sports in addition to their academics.” 

In high school, Masaiti always knew she wanted to earn a scholarship to go to university abroad. Even though she worked hard, she ended up just falling short of the qualifications for the academically excelling student scholarship. 

Although never done before, she applied for an athletic scholarship for chess.

“I’m a chess player, right, but chess is not a conventional sport,” Masaiti said. “It had never been done before, but we applied, we prayed and I won the scholarship.” 

Of all the universities around the world, the scholarship committee chose Texas Tech University for Masaiti’s undergraduate studies. At the time, in 2020, it was the U.S. Chess College of the Year, Masaiti said. 

When she first joined the Texas Tech chess team in 2020, it was entirely virtual because of the COVID pandemic. There were five girls on the team, including herself. 

“When I officially came on campus in 2021, I was the only girl on the chess team,” Masaiti said. “But it didn’t feel like that…everyone was nice and got along. I got to learn from grandmasters and play with the B-Team, and I even played on the A-Team for my last tournament for Texas Tech at the Pan-American Chess Championships.” 

Masaiti obtained her bachelor’s degree in economics with minors in mathematics and actuarial science from Texas Tech. When looking into graduate education, she came across Lehigh’s MS in Financial Engineering (MFE) program and reached out to professor Patrick Zoro.

Zoro’s helpfulness is part of what attracted her to the school, in addition to the support she received from Kevin Ezzell and Allison Toth of the Graduate Programs Office. 

At Lehigh, Masaiti has been working as a graduate assistant at the International Center for Academic and Professional English (ICAPE). The center focuses on English comprehension skills for multilingual English speakers, meaning either native or non-native speakers, Mark Ouellette, an ICAPE faculty member and English professor, said. They provide workshops, language testing and assessments, and more. 

Through this time, she’s held interviews and focus groups with students, with a focus particularly on graduate students, Ouellette said.

“Besa has helped us try to glean what students want, what they need, what their perspectives are and what their challenges have been,” Ouellette said. “She can connect with students in different ways than we can.”  

Masaiti has been balancing her financial engineering studies with her passion for chess at Lehigh. She said she is a regular at the Lehigh Chess Club weekly meetings and has even recently been asked by the Department of Materials Science and Engineering to start a chess club. 

“She’s a super strong player,” Skyler Mott, president and founder of Lehigh Chess Club, said. “Everything that she can bring in are things most of the club players have never seen. There are 10 very strong players in the club and the rest are pretty good, but still working on it. But she’s willing to play everyone and give everyone an opportunity, which is great for their development as players.” 

She said she is also pursuing a new chess coach, who is a female grandmaster, to hopefully improve her game more. 

Masaiti said she’s grateful that everywhere she’s gone, she’s found a chess community of people who become like family to her. 

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