Top Kenyan students flying high in America
It was about four years ago when family, friends and well-wishers were seeing off their hero, Mr Anthony Siloiy, a Kabarak High School alumnus, who was headed to Harvard University, one of the world’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.
At a ceremony to see him off held at Bartolimo Primary School, former Permanent Secretary for Finance Benjamin Kipkulei shed tears of joy for the young man from a humble family who was going to join Harvard.
“He was the first student to go to Harvard from the area and the former PS was overjoyed to witness the occasion. He (Mr Kipkulei) moved us when he started to cry,” recalls Mr Eric Bett, whose son was the reason for the celebration.
Bartolimo, the primary school Siloiy attended, is the only one for miles in Kapteberewo location. Pupils from the surrounding villages like Kabchepkisa and Tungo went to school there.
Having many wives and keeping livestock is considered a status symbol and most families marry off their underage daughters for prestige. The boys are often considered more useful herding livestock or protecting the community.
Consistent poor rains, dilapidated infrastructure and endless fighting fuelled by cattle rustling among neighbouring communities have only made a bad situation worse — leaving most schools closed and stifling economic activities like beekeeping.
“It has been like this for some time now,” says Mr Bett.
DETERMINED TO SUCCEED
That was probably why when he landed in America, young Siloiy was determined to succeed. He was top of his Bachelor of Computers class of 2014, no mean achievement even for those from a privileged background.
Today, Mr Siloiy works as a systems quality engineer at EMC – a multinational whose headquarters are in Massachusetts – which is recognised for its data management and storage capabilities. America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration — a US government agency responsible for the civilian space programme and research — is among EMC’s clients.
Mr Siloiy was not at liberty to discuss with Lifestyle what his role entails because of what he simply explained as “restrictions”, but Mr Bett said his son had never been happier at work.
And, who knows, the young man from Baringo could be the first Kenyan to travel to space!
Another young Kenyan, Mr Daniel Nyakora, who graduated from Yale University – a top-level institution – with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics last year, works with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and is set to soon join a leading American multinational financial services corporation.
“I loved working with them and I also admired the efforts they put in developing new talent, unlike Kenya where firms hire graduates hoping to train them,” says Mr Nyakora about the global management consulting company that advises many top organisations.
The two are beneficiaries of the Equity Leadership Programme (ELP), which sponsors “A” students to top universities in the world.
When top executives at Equity Bank decided in 1998 to start the programme, they never imagined that some of the beneficiaries would become high-level players in global corporates like they are doing today.
The bank selects the top students from its Wings to Fly programme — a scholarship to enable bright but needy primary school students receive secondary education. Those who attain a mean grade of “A” and the top boy and girl in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination from the counties are given an opportunity to be world class leaders. This is mainly through mentorship and university scholarships in top institutions.
Many of the beneficiaries of the programme hold influential positions in prestigious companies, mostly in the US where they studied.
Sheer academic prowess and hard work have surely paid off.
Those who spoke to Lifestyle concurred that Ivy League education afforded them pivotal opportunities in their careers, just one year after graduation from those hallowed institutions.
“My greatest accomplishment so far is gaining admission into and graduating from Williams College,” says Ms Doris Mbabu, who works as a managing partner at Wellington Management, an investment company in Boston.
Last year, the college was ranked the best university in the US by Forbes due to its “educational outcomes, teaching quality, student satisfaction and graduation rates”.
In 2010, Ms Mbabu, the third born in a family of six who sat her KCSE examination at Precious Blood School, Kilungu, was the best ranked girl in the then Eastern Province and 13th nationally.
The multinational company that she works for is an investment adviser for more than 2,000 institutional clients spread across 50 countries.
“It is a firm where people are both competent and kind, and every day I am challenged to produce the best quality of work. But I also feel well supported to learn, be curious and to take prudent risks,” says Ms Mbabu in describing her workplace.
For others, it is exceptional achievements in research, design, engineering, production and services that lie behind their success. Top organisations in the US such as BCG identify talented students as early as in their second year of college, and train them so that by the time they graduate, they are fully baked and custom-cut for their jobs.
For example, a few years from now, Mr Denver Ogaro, though relatively unknown at the moment, may be one of the people setting the pace in the fast-changing world of technology.
A rock music lover, the software engineer working for the global giant Google in Massachusetts came up with a system that fixed some of the search software defects while still an intern in August 2014.
A THRILL BEING PRIVY TO TECHNOLOGY
He was also part of a team that worked on a system that visualises magnitudes of different technology effects on vehicles with the intention of developing new fuel-saving technology.
Interns and employees at Google get to try out new products and product upgrades before they are released publicly.
Mr Ogaro was last year quoted by the company’s blog saying it was somewhat a thrill being privy to technology that isn’t available to the rest of the world yet.
Mr Ogaro first used a computer when he joined Alliance High School in Kiambu County.
“The first time I used a computer was at the beginning of my high school freshman year. It was one of the shared desktops in the school’s computer lab,” he says in his profile on the Google website. “But two years later, I discovered a vulnerability in the school’s network that allowed an attacker to gain access to examination questions and edit transcripts before they were printed.”
Mr Ogaro works with Google’s knowledge-events team, which is responsible for building and analysing Google’s repository of music concerts, festivals and other live events.
The team’s job is to make sure that Google’s Knowledge Graph keeps up with upcoming events. Information generated by the team’s pipeline shows up in search, in response to event-related user queries.
“One of the company’s core values, and one that has become ingrained in the culture at Google, is to always put the user before any short-term financial gain,” he says.
For Mr Nyakora, his success and that of his colleagues in the programme can only be compared to the Tom Mboya airlifts in the 1960s that benefitted many bright but poor students. Mr Mboya was an influential Kenyan politician who was assassinated on July 5, 1969. His daughter, Dr Susan Mboya-Kidero, a senior executive at Coca-Cola, also runs Zawadi Africa, a scholarship programme.
“From about a handful of students that went to study abroad, we had products such as Barack Obama Senior who was an influential economist in Kenya,” says Mr Nyakora in reference to the US president’s father. Mr Obama Snr, who died in 1982, studied at the Universities of Hawaii and Harvard.
The Mboya airlifts to the US benefitted more than 700 Kenyans and other residents of East Africa. Among the beneficiaries was environmentalist Wangari Mathaai, who became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and geneticist Reuben Olembo, who became a director at the United Nations Environment Agency.
But unlike Mboya’s initiative that specifically took its beneficiaries to state universities, the Equity programme targets mainly Ivy League colleges like Harvard, Stanford and Yale.
Out of the new group that President Uhuru Kenyatta saw off at State House, Nairobi, last week, 17 will be joining Harvard University, 13 will be heading to Yale University and seven to Stanford, among others.
In Kenya, Harvard is known for producing the best of the best in their respective fields.
Meru Senator Kiraitu Murungi, State University of New York scholar Makau Mutua, Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana, Industrialisation Cabinet Secretary Adan Mohamed and Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich are some of the personalities that have gone through the prestigious university.
Amherst College, which Mr Elijah Koome from Meru School will be joining, is where President Kenyatta studied.
Another beneficiary, Mr Edgar Odongo, who has been admitted to Yale University to study computer science, says the first time he came across the name of the famous university was in Ben Carson’s book, Gifted Hands.
“Initially I believed that you only had to study medicine to be successful in life but, on attending the bank’s (Equity) annual education and leadership congress and listening to successful people like Vimal Shah – the MD of Bidco Oil Refineries – and others, I was impressed and I now want to be an entrepreneur too,” he says.
Then there is Ms Emmanuela Alimlim from Loikas village in Maralal, Samburu County, who will be joining the University of Toronto to study financial economics and urban planning.
But even before joining university, Ms Alimlim is already a leading light in her community, who has a girls’ empowerment programme.
“I was alarmed by the rate of girls dropping out of school due to repugnant cultural practices in the community,” she says.
In March last year, she was recognised by UNESCO as one of the global young emerging leaders.
“We are confident that after pursuing their studies and creating strong networks among their peers in the world, these scholars will come back and team up with their peers locally to build to build a strong economy for Kenya and Africa,” says Mr James Mwangi, the Equity Bank CEO.
He adds, “The destiny of young people in Kenya should not be tied to the current financial situation of their parents. These people have the potential to break the cycle of poverty and change their own destinies, that of their families and the society in general.”
As a child, a barefoot Mr Mwangi divided his time between Nyagatugu Primary School in Kangema and selling fruits and vegetables to supplement his family’s income. He still refers to himself as a village person.
Today he holds five honorary doctorate degrees in recognition of his contributions to the Kenyan society, a Bachelor of Commerce degree and is a Certified Public Accountant heading East Africa’s largest bank in terms of customers, chairs several boards and is the Chancellor Meru University College of Science and Technology.
Additionally, he was named the World Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young in 2012, the Forbes Africa Person of the Year in 2012 and is a holder of the 2007 Global Vision Award besides numerous local awards.
A total of 2,673 students have so far benefited from the programme.
“This year alone it cost the bank up to Sh1.4 billion. It is the biggest airlift programme to ever happen in Kenya and will greatly benefit the country,” says Mr Mwangi.
When President Kenyatta saw off 65 students who are travelling to study at top universities abroad courtesy of the bank’s programme, he asked that they be good ambassadors and return home to help build the country.
What it takes to gain admission to Ivy League and other top varsities
By Maryanne Gicobi
You do not have to be an ‘A’ student for you to be admitted to America’s Ivy League universities or other prestigious institutions in the West.
Lifestyle spoke to three students who, though they did not perform exceptionally well in their KCSE examinations, joined Harvard College, London School of Economics and Cambridge University.
Sheila Olang’, who will be joining the London School of Economics next month, says that in secondary school she came to accept that she needed to put in early morning hours of reading for her to grasp concepts.
“I have never been an A student unlike some of my classmates who did not read as much as I did but performed better. I had to attend all classes and spent hours reading to pass my exams,” Ms Olang’ told Lifestyle.
Her advice? “I would tell candidates and anyone in school right now to know themselves and not to flow with the crowd; to know their weaknesses and their strengths. For me, listening to the teacher in class makes it easier when I get to read the notes.”
She explains that she got a B+ in KCSE but her active involvement in the Child Rights Club, which she formed at Kisumu Girls while in Form Two, set her well above the rest.
Going to a recognised university is likely to help open doors for their future. Mr Edwin Magema, who graduated from Harvard in May 2015, says that for a candidate to be admitted to a top institution, it may be important for one to demonstrate what one has done to help the society — beyond academic qualifications and character.
“I used to be involved in a lot of community projects at home. I would marshal people to do tasks such as filling up gulleys and trenches to make the roads passible,” he said. Mr Magema studied at Weiwei Secondary School in Pokot, which had only seven teachers employed by the Teachers Service Commission and three untrained ones. The school’s population was 135 students due to its perpetual poor performance.
Having lost his parents at the tender age of seven, Edwin was brought up in a foster home. He scored 384 marks out of a possible 500 when he sat his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations.
He remembers that his secondary school did not have enough laboratory equipment and, in his Form Four, he did less than five practicals for the science subjects.
Mr Mbutu Kariuki, an alumnus of Cambridge University in England, shares a similar humble beginning. Mr Mbutu studied at Kiranja Day School in Kirinyaga County and scored a mean grade of B-. Learning in a day school has its own unique challenges. He, for example, rented a small single room from where he commuted to school.
“I did not even apply to join university because I knew I would not get a grade good enough to secure a place in a public university in Kenya,” Mr Mbutu said.
But he believes it is possible for one to pick up the pieces later in life. After he was admitted to the University of Nairobi for a Bachelor of Education degree he dropped out in second year, and went back to first year to study psychology.
“I studied really hard in the university, seeing that I had not performed well in KCSE. I managed to score a First Class in the end,” he said.
The good score coupled with lots of involvement with helping youth to keep off drugs and alcohol, reaching to young women in prostitution among other initiatives appeared to have convinced the admissions team at Cambridge University.
He is currently pursuing a PhD in Development Psychology at University of Otago in New Zealand.