She was a girl who had a dream. Martin Luther King she was. The only difference, the type of mountain to surmount but she had that fire in her. The hunger to succeed.
Fast forward to now, she remembers being elated when she learnt she’d been offered a full four-year scholarship to study at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee High in the United States. That was the start of her American journey which would see her go from one of Kenya’s poorest communities to an elite US university.
What was it like at the start?
Josephine Nyakundi was born in Rongai, Kajiado County in a humble family. She had a couple of siblings while her father was a driver employed by a local bank and her mother the support system and glue that bound the family together.
The humble nature of her family meant it was possible that she would not get an education since her older sister was already enrolled in secondary school and the resource squeeze made it difficult for her father to provide for all his children like he would have wanted.
It is not uncommon for poor African families to pin their hopes on one child when backed up against the wall and unfortunately, the Nyakundi Family was in this situation with no other alternative.
At this juncture, Josephine was fourteen years old bubbling with dreams with no path whatsoever to the promised land.
In comes her mother, who had somehow heard about Bridge, Rongai then that feeling of things looking up crept in— this was an opportunity to be seized so Josephine was enrolled at the institution.
Looking back, Josephine says it was the start of a life changing journey. Prior to joining Bridge, Josephine changed schools often, partially because of fluctuating tuition fees and partially because of her family circumstances.
At the previous schools she went to; she says that she felt that “something was amiss; she kept yearning to learn more but it just didn’t happen. The school day often felt pointless, other than the fun she had with her friends. It was frustrating, my reading was not good and without the right papers life will be hard”.
At Bridge, the teachers were supportive and prepared to help her go the extra mile to succeed. Reflecting back on her journey, Josephine says, “It seems strange to remember this, but teachers at Bridge were concerned, very caring and always there to help. Many of my friends at high school in the US say that all their teachers were like this but not in my experience, it was unusual. My teachers helped me improve so much and build more confidence in me than I had before,” she says.
As a result of her increased confidence, she approached her primary school exit exams – the Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) – with hopefulness. Josephine sat the KCPE in 2015, scoring a very impressive 381 marks out of 500.
In Kenya, good performance in national examinations determines what kind of secondary school you can attend and that can often determine your life prospects. Josephine’s score was a real excitement both for her family and community.
In previous years, she would have considered finishing primary school an achievement, let alone doing so well. In her community many of her friends dropped out of school well before the KCPE year, often to have children and get married or because their families didn’t see the point in continuing the education of their girls.
After the excitement of receiving her score, she started considering secondary school options. She hoped for a place at a national secondary school in Kenya, but then she heard news about a scholarship opportunity for a high school in the US.
After discussing it with her teachers and her family she decided to go for it and was amazed to hear that her application had succeeded. News of her scholarship to study abroad couldn’t have come at a better time.
It was a big decision for Josephine and her family. She had rarely left the county and had not left Kenya plus, if she went her family would stay at home. She knew that the team at Bridge would always be a place to turn to but she didn’t have any friends or family in the area or even on the continent.
When Josphine boarded the plane to the US, she knew that this was an opportunity to take charge of her own destiny and create a new path for herself, and she was not disappointed.
“The chance to study in a US high school was one of the biggest breaks of my life; it came with many life-changing possibilities for someone like me. It gave me the opportunity to really learn about myself, how to be independent and meet people from every single part of the world! Most importantly, it gave me the chance to have a really great high school education. It was amazing studying at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee High,” says Josephine.
Studying in a leading US high school, Josephine made sure to continue with her good work ethic. In May this year, she graduated from Rabun Gap-Nacoochee.
Before her graduation she had been working with her school mentor and talking to her family about what to do next. She assumed that she would return to Kenya and take up a university place nearer to home. However, she heard that there were some scholarship opportunities for Universities and having been successful once before when the odds were against her she thought that she would try again. Josephine says, “I believe in hard work. And I know I am focused and determined enough when I decide to achieve something. Most importantly, I am down-to-earth and always ready to accept feedback so I can continue to improve.”
It worked. In September this year, Josephine was admitted to Presbyterian College, in South Carolina. She can’t believe it; when she thinks back to her primary school days and walking to school in the alleys of the slum, Presbyterian could be a different world.
Josephine knows that her hard work for four years has paid off handsomely, but also that she has many years more ahead. “Getting into Presbyterian University has been the result of continuous efforts. I was actively involved in various activities all through my senior school years so that I would be able to make a strong university application, but I didn’t know if it would come through. I am so excited that it did.” At Presbyterian University, she’s embarked on her studies with the goal of achieving her dream of becoming a doctor.
She is taking classes that will prepare her to study medicine: “I am focused on becoming a doctor and I’m on a pre-med track in college right now. But, as I learn more I have become more interested in public health and the idea of improving public health systems around the world and opening up the kind of healthcare people can receive.”
Looking back, Josephine is quick to highlight that this has not been an easy journey. “It all seemed impossible in the middle of my primary years; when my family was having to make tough decisions and my parents were struggling. But what kept me going was hope. I didn’t want to give up.”
School has always been important to her: “If you are not educated you are always going to be at the bottom. If you’re educated people won’t look down on you and you’ll be somehow like a hero because you will be able to help other people.”
As Josephine carves out a niche for herself in a land far from home, she holds dear to her heart the sacrifices her parents made to try and change her world for the better. And as the old saying goes, she wants her parents to know that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. “Her message to her teachers at Bridge: “Thank you… You gave me a foundation. That is what made me. I became hard working and I hope that you’re watching and my journey is making you proud.”
Josephine’s story could be the story of so many; all that distinguishes her journey from others is a strong start through a strong school. As she continues on with her education at Presbyterian University we celebrate her success and what the future awaits her. However, we also pause and reflect on the systemic failings that means Josephine and her story is not the norm; millions of girls will never have her opportunities because they never had access to a good school and a strong teacher.