How a rare moment of defiance led one Kenyan girl to Yale University

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The one single moment Esther Soma went against her parent’s wish, unimaginable opportunities opened in ways she never thought were possible. At only 20 years, Esther has met and interacted with world leaders and global entrepreneurs and is studying at a prestigious Ivy League University.

 

Growing up in a Christian household in Kenya, disobedience was not a habit that was particularly encouraged. Education standards are highly esteemed (two of her siblings are doctors).

 

But Esther applied to the Africa Leadership Academy (ALA) while still at Alliance Girls against her parents’ wish for her to finish her high school first before pursuing other interests.

 

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“You would rather try and fail rather than live with regrets,” says Esther – a mantra she has lived by.

 

Affable, disciplined and self-effacing, Esther wouldn’t be described as a rebel. But just this one time, she went with her gut feeling and got admitted to the prestigious academy.

 

ALA is a premier pan-African secondary institution based in South Africa that admits only talented and outstanding students from all over Africa. So getting in is not a matter of connections or how rich your parents are.

 

“The recruitment process was rigorous. Over 200 Kenyan students applied but only 40 were short listed to go through the interview process,” explains Esther, who was born in Kenya but whose parents’ are South Sudanese.

 

“The recruiters don’t just look at your academic performance, although that is important. We had face-to-face interviews, wrote essays, participated in simulated situations under close observation and other cognitive and creative tests,” says Esther.

 

At some point during the six-month long recruitment process, the candidates were asked to introduce themselves using an object or build paper towers in teams to test their team spirit.

 

Only 10 got admission to ALA and Esther was on the list. Not a small achievement for a girl that sat her KCPE at St. Mary’s Ruaraka.

 

Extraordinary at an exceptional institution

Apparently, according to Esther, an admission of 10 candidates from one country is really high.

 

“Kenyans (students) are really strong compared to other African countries. I think it’s the education system…but students from Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco and Zimbabwe are also good.”

 

So as she was just about to sit for the KCSE mocks, Esther left for South Africa for her A-level studies at ALA to join 90 other African students from 43 different countries for two years.

 

“Apart from the normal A-level American curriculum, we had additional classes like entrepreneurship, leadership and African studies,” expounds Esther.

Esther says the teaching and learning method is unconventional as it emphasis on developing the capacity of students through practical skills and projects.

 

“The education system makes learning fun and engaging. We had to come up with community projects and business ideas and implement them according to industry standards. It wasn’t just about grades in class.”

 

At some point, her team had to report to a ‘Board of Directors’ from the corporate world and produce news reports in a segment named ‘This week in Africa’.

 

It was at ALA that Esther met Michelle Obama as part of the Young Women Leadership program where only three ALA students were selected to be part of.

 

“I also participated in the Aspen Ideas Program run under the Bezos Scholar where I met the Bezos (parents of Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos), New York Times celebrated journalist David Brooks and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey,” says Esther, without any hint of name-dropping.

 

At ALA, Esther learned self-awareness and what it means to be a global citizen. Public speaking became second nature to her as she engaged with other students and became involved in various international projects.

 

“In addition, ALA helped students apply to US universities through tutorials, coaching on SAT and college essays,” explains Esther.

The process of applying to US colleges is quite intense as thousands of students from across the globe apply to the Ivy League universities.

 

“Since I was in class six at St. Mary’s Ruaraka Primary School, I have always dreamt of studying at Harvard University. But a series of events at ALA made me reconsider,” says Esther.

 

Four of her teachers at the Academy attended Yale for their undergraduate and Masters and had a lot of good things to say about the institution.

 

“The Yale Orchestra singing band visited ALA and I was quite impressed by their discipline and talent. I got to interact with them a bit,” explains Esther.

So after consulting with family and praying, she applied to Yale, requesting full scholarship. The chances of getting admission and scholarship were slim considering her classmates had applied to Yale and other universities with most getting regret letters.

 

“I got the admission letter on my first attempt…plus a 99 percent scholarship offer. I was really happy and grateful. So I spent the rest of the term helping my friends with their applications.”

 

“I wasn’t sure what to study so I had applied as ‘undecided’. Now I am taking general courses in Arts, Sciences, Humanities, French, Philosophy, Economics and African Politics,” adds Esther.

 

Studying at Yale
The orientation at Yale was really helpful according to Esther. The international students have a special office where they can get help when they are stuck.

 

“ALA also connected some of us with host families in Boston to help us acclimatize to the culture. I also found (15) Kenyan students at Yale who helped me to understand how the institution works and explain student activities,” Esther says.

 

She explains the academic culture at Yale is very cordial. Students are encouraged to befriend professors and studies are mostly in small groups.

 

“We have a lot of research papers to do which require proper in-depth research and proper referencing. Everything runs like a Swiss watch. We submit assignments on-line and on-time and lecturers and students show up for classes on time, all the time.”

 

Esther plans to major in Global Affairs, which is a branch of International Affairs after her first year. She is a member of the Africa Students Association, Christian Leadership Fellowship and the Christian Acappela Group.

 

“Except for that one instance of ‘independent decision’ at Alliance, I have generally followed by dad’s advice: pursue God, pursue education,” summarizes Esther.Source-CAPITAL FM

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