Nursery Rhymes, Connecting Dots and Studying Abroad: Keynote Address at the IACAC Conference

 

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I shared these remarks on my study abroad experience and the impact it has had on my life and career on the 20th of October 2016 at Brookhouse International School in Nairobi to an audience of over 100 international university admissions officials and college counselors from over 15 different countries.


 

Good evening everybody! Karibuni Kenya; it’s such a big honor to share part of my story with you today.

I grew up in a small village called Kabazi in Nakuru County, about a three hour drive from here. As kids in the village, there’s this nursery rhyme that we would sing in Gikuyu, my first language. Fortunately or unfortunately, my memory of the rhyme’s lyrics and rhythm has since faded. I say fortunately because I wouldn’t want to hurt your ears at the beginning of this noble conference with my pretense at singing. The rhyme—in the simplistic, nursery rhyme style—told the story of a boy who did well in his exams, got a scholarship, got on a plane and flew away America. As a kid, only the plane part struck me, probably because I knew nothing about scholarships or America but there were buzzing planes that flew above our village—far, far away in the sky, leaving trails of smoke that frayed at their tails. So, as soon as I got to primary school and could speak a little English, I told my mother, “Mum, I want to be a pilot when I grow up.” However, as a kid, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would study outside our borders. I am sure eight-year-old, nursery-rhyme-singing me would look at twenty-three-year-old-me standing in front of you to talk about his six-year study abroad experience with surprise. “Like, how did this happen older Muturi?” he would ask.

***

In his epic Commencement Speech at Stanford, Steve Jobs talks about how when we look back on our lives, we can connect the dots of serendipity and events—good and bad—that have led to where we are today. My study abroad journey started at a small routine meeting for scholars supported by the Ujima Scholarship Fund for their high school education in 2007.  I remember the Patron of the Fund, our then Member of Parliament, Koigi wa Wamwere telling us of a new school in South Africa. This school would bring together young Africans from across the continent to train them on leadership, entrepreneurship and African Studies, as well as offer them the A-Level curriculum. I was immediately fascinated. I soon applied. Following a rigorous application process—that even entailed describing myself through an object in ninety seconds (my choice of object is a story for another day)—I found myself on the African Leadership Academy’s campus in Johannesburg, South Africa. My mum had teared up at the airport, something African parents reserve for rare occasions. Waving off your 16-year-old only child to the unknown must be a difficult thing; I doubt I would be able to do it myself.

I was blown away by the cultural diversity at ALA. Just three years earlier, I had been in a primary school with a thousand kids from within three miles of my home, now I shared a campus with two hundred students from over 30 countries in Africa. My first-year roommate was Abdramane Sylla, a Celine Dion-loving, athletic Malian. At 16, I was confronted with the challenge of living with a roommate who primarily spoke French, which I couldn’t speak or hear a word of. We mentored each other in our languages; he taught me a little French and Bambara, I taught him a little English and Kiswahili—and through our discussions on football and time on the pitch, the cultural barriers came tumbling down. More than roommates, we became friends.

At ALA, I also met Ms. Laura Kaub and Ms. Chemeli Kipkorir who are here today. I can confidently confess today that were it not for these two wonderful women, I would never have set foot at Colgate University. I mean, I could barely name five schools in the US when I joined ALA—I hardly knew of Colgate a year before I landed in Upstate New York. I remember the first college application exercise we did was an SAT diagnostic paper towards the end of our first year at ALA. I probably managed slightly above the six hundred you get for writing your name correctly. That summer, Ms. Laura and Ms. Chemeli prepared us this giant handbook with copious information on applying to colleges abroad and homework to take back with us when studies resumed. Sadly, my hard copy was stolen on the streets of Nairobi—when a porter decided to make my suitcase his (in my defense, I was new to the city)—but Ms. Chemeli was gracious enough to send me a soft copy. In our second year, Ms. Laura and Ms. Chemeli led us in weekly college counselling sessions and held our hands in private consultations. They opened our eyes to broader opportunities outside the Ivy Leagues. They listened to what we wanted out of our college experiences (most of which was unclear to us) and gave us personalized advice. I knew I wanted to attend a small school with small class sizes—as an introvert, I feared drowning in a sea of too many people. I also wanted a place to seek and explore my different interests (I know it sounds cliché, but I wasn’t very sure what I precisely wanted to do with my life—the ‘pilot thing’ had fallen off my radar already). Ms. Laura and Ms. Chemeli answered our questions patiently and comprehensively. I remember Ms. Laura asking at the end of every group session, “Anyone with a question, concern, comment, anything?” They provided us with both the knowledge and the moral support. I would be a first-generation college student, and the first person in my family to study abroad, so inasmuch as my mother loved me so much, there is only so little she could do to support me through the application process—especially being about two thousand, six hundred miles away (I Googled that!). Even when we felt like giving up, Ms. Laura and Ms. Chemeli would show us that victory was within reach, and that all we needed was to give it our genuine best shot. Today in Kenya, it is Mashujaa Day—a national day to celebrate our heroes. To Ms. Laura, Ms. Chemeli, and all the college counsellors in the room, you are heroes and we celebrate you. (Claps)

You know what else Ms. Laura and Ms. Chemeli were good at? Celebrating with us when we got admitted! I remember when my package from Colgate came in and I had to collect it from Ms. Laura’s office. I remember the pride on her face, that warm bear hug she gave me. I remember her telling me how Colgate has “the most beautiful campus ever”—and she was right! That I would be spending four years on this “most beautiful campus ever”, on an almost full scholarship, felt surreal. Even more surreal was the hand-written note on my admission folder from Gary Ross, the Dean of Admissions at Colgate—but I got a little bummed when I later learnt that he wrote a note for every admitted student at Colgate.

***

August 2011, the Colgate Cruiser from Syracuse Hancock Airport meanders across “the most beautiful campus ever” and settles beside Frank Dining Hall: day zero in Hamilton. Four years later, 17th of May 2015, my mother ululates in the audience as President Jeffrey Herbst hands me my diploma in the Sanford Fieldhouse. I do not have enough time today to explain all that happens between those last two sentences; I can only summarize it. In those four years, I learn to fall and stand, on my feet, and on the shoulders of others; I co-found the African Youth Journals, an online platform for young Africans to challenge what Chimamanda Adichie calls “the single story of Africa”; I study in five different countries; I somehow manage to take courses in Psychology, Economics, Computer Science, African Studies, Caribbean Studies, English & Literature, Writing and Rhetoric, and more; my peers and professors fan my curiosity and passion for storytelling; I intern in Kenya during my summers (one summer piloting a peer-to-peer mobile-based micro-lending app and the next mentoring Kenyan youth applying to colleges abroad on their writing); I lead the African Students Union and we put together the first ever African fashion show on campus; I confirm that freshman fifteen is no myth; I adore snow the first time I see it and loathe it two weeks later; I cry a bit, especially in my first year; I learn from my psychologist one day that chewing gum can somehow cheer up a depressed person; I forge great friendships that withstand the tests of time and distance…I really could go on and on, and remember this is just a summary. But the thread that ties it all together is growth.

In that small village called Hamilton in Madison County, about 24 hours or 48 hours away from here (depending on which airline you use), I grew.

***

And now I am back home, on the continent I missed so much in those four years. To be honest, on some days, I feel like returning was a terrible mistake that a wiser person should have talked me out of (my mother tried but she failed). Thankfully, those days are fewer. On most days, I think of how I can apply my educational privilege to help solve the challenges that confront our people. Depending on what definition you use, unemployment rate in Kenya may be as high as 40%—and this is higher among the youth.[1] The figures seem abstract in academic reports, but they gain a disturbing concreteness when they represent your peers and siblings. Africa’s a young continent; our median age is only 19.6 years.[2] With that, I believe the biggest challenge—and opportunity—for higher education, and for anyone interested in Africa really, is in empowering our young people with the skills, technology, financing and conducive environment to unleash our potential. This cannot, and will not, be achieved by an individual or a single organization. Which is why building connections and partnerships is so important. One of the key benefits of my study abroad experience has been gaining powerful multicultural networks, like-minded friends from all over the globe, with whom I can face the challenges ahead. I hope the connections we form this week will offer similar opportunities to hundreds, if not thousands, of more gifted young people.

Thank you very much.


[1] http://www.tradingeconomics.com/kenya/unemployment-rate

 

[2] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2177.html

 

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