A graduate student comes to Iowa to further her own education—in hopes of helping others do the same.
Wangui Gathua gets emotionally involved. It’s in her nature. Whether at home in Kenya, or studying abroad in the United States, she empathizes with those in need, and has a passion for doing whatever she can to make their lives a little better.
It was that passion that brought her to Iowa. A teacher-turned-counselor at a girls’ school outside of Nairobi, Gathua found herself getting caught up in her students’ lives. They came to her with issues like pregnancy and financial problems that threatened to force them to drop out of school.
Gathua wanted to help, but felt limited.
“I was just given the job: ‘This is what you do,’ ” she says. “There was no training.”
So when the director of the American Education Advisory Center in the U.S. Embassy in Kenya suggested she attend graduate school in the United States to learn how to be a more effective counselor, she jumped at the chance. By furthering her own education, she thought, she’d be better able to help others do the same.
Gathua narrowed her search to schools in the Midwest. “I wanted to be in a place where they are friendly to big families,” says Gathua, who has five children. “And I am a farm girl, so I wanted to see green.”
She enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa, where she earned her master’s degree, then moved to Iowa City, where she is currently a doctoral student in the counselor education and supervision program in the College of Education Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation and Student Development.
Even while studying thousands of miles away, Gathua has continued her mission to help Kenyan girls. Shortly after arriving in Cedar Falls in 2002, she established an Iowa branch of the School Outreach Community Based Organization (SOCOBO), a group that she helped found in Kenya two years earlier. SOCOBO raises awareness about the plight of girls in Kenya and creates scholarships for those who need financial assistance in order to complete high school.
“I hate to see a girl drop out of school for whatever reason,” she says. “The way society’s set up, right from birth, a girl child is disadvantaged. Women are not on par with men.”
By providing girls with the means to get an education, SOCOBO empowers them and helps them become self-sufficient, Gathua says. The organization currently works with teachers at 35 schools in seven regions around Nairobi, and Gathua is working to expand its reach.
“We are in the process of getting tax-exempt status so we can get bigger chunks of grant money,” she says. Currently most funds come from private donations.
Gathua keeps in close touch with the teachers involved in SOCOBO, and whenever she returns to Kenya, she visits the girls they help.
“That motivates me even more,” she says. “You hear, ‘If it weren’t for you, so-and-so would have dropped out of high school.’ It’s overwhelming and humbling. I wish I could do more.”
But -- she does.
During a visit to Kenya in December of 2007 and January of 2008, Gathua got caught in the ethnic violence that erupted after the disputed reelection of President Mwai Kibaki. Hundreds died and an estimated 350,000 to 400,000 Kenyans were displaced, including Gathua’s brother and sister.
When she returned to Iowa City, her colleagues asked how they could help, so Gathua formed a new branch of SOCOBO. Under that branch, the Kenyan Humanitarian Fund, she collected money and supplies for those affected by the violence.
The fighting may be over, she says, but Kenyans are still dealing with the aftermath, and Gathua wants to do whatever she can to make that easier.
“It’s part of me,” she says. “Even when I’m trying to get help, I’m experiencing what the people I’m working with, or working for, are experiencing. I want to be part of the healing process.”
Iowa, she says, has become a part of her too: “I’ve grown roots here,” she says. “I belong to both worlds.”
So she also reaches out to other international students. She advises consultants in Kenya who are helping students look for schools abroad, and helps connect immigrants – especially African immigrants -- with essential services after they arrive in Iowa City.
“All that I ask,” she says, “is: ‘Can you help one more person? One more immigrant? Or one more foreign student?’”
For more information, or to donate to SOCOBO, contact Gathua at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-930-1883.
Story by Anne Kapler; Photo by Tom Jorgensen
January 12. 2009