From Kenya to NIU

By Sam Malone

DeKALB — As Revela Odhuno envisions the moment she will walk across the stage to receive her bachelor’s degree in nursing, her eyes light up, and the corners of her mouth are drawn up by joy. She didn’t think she would go to college. She didn’t even think she would go to high school. Yet here she is, all because of the ambitions of two NIU professors and the generosity of many others who have touched her and hundreds of girls just like her.

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As a child, Revela lived in Muhoroni, a small town in Kenya whose economy relied on the local sugar cane factory. Most people in the community depended on that factory, but it wasn’t a reliable source of income. Employees would go months without pay. Stomachs would go days without food.

When Revela graduated eighth grade, her future became uncertain.

Her mother had passed away when Revela was eight years old, and her father couldn’t afford to send her to high school because her older sister was already enrolled.

Revela, it was decided, would enter the workforce or return to eighth grade, despite having passed the national test required in Africa to graduate.

It’s common in Africa for a child’s education to end after eighth grade as the government stops paying for their education, Teresa Wasonga, professor of leadership, education, psychology and foundations, explained. Wasonga and her husband Andrew Otieno, engineering technology professor, saw this firsthand when living in Africa.

The two were part of a larger group of Kenyans who came together to help children living in poverty, but Wasonga noticed something: poverty affected girls differently.

Where boys were going on to succeed after receiving financial support, girls were still receiving poor grades. Wasonga suspected this was because girls were more worried than boys about where they would get their next meal and other outside stresses.

“What is a school but four walls and some teachers,” Wasonga thought, dreaming up the Jane Adeny Memorial School for Girls.

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The couple began asking wealthy friends in Africa for financial support but hit a wall before they could build any.

In Africa, Wasonga said, the culture is intensely individualistic. “What’s in it for me?” their friends would inquire. In DeKalb, Wasonga and Otieno encountered a different kind of culture. DeKalb residents, they found, were willing to give financial support, helping the couple build the walls Wasonga dreamed about.

It was 2009 when Diana Swanson, an NIU retiree and longtime friend of Wasonga, heard about her friends’ ambitious dream. She encouraged Wasonga, and, in 2011, Wasonga told her, “I just have to start building the school.” Three years later, Wasonga and Otieno had not just built the Jane Adeny Memorial School for Girls — they had opened it.

Swanson, Otieno and Wasonga began raising funds to sponsor what would become the first graduating class of JAMS. The cost of attendance, $800 for each year a student is enrolled, includes boarding, clothes, school materials, food and everything else the girls need to live at JAMS, Wasonga said.

Early one Sunday morning, Swanson decided to tell the congregation at her church about what Wasonga and Otieno were doing. Sitting in their pews, the North Atlantic Ocean and 8,000 miles between them and the girls in Kenya, members of the Mayfield Congregational Church began raising funds.

By noon, the congregation had donated enough money to send a young girl in rural Africa to high school. Her name was Ruth.

“It’s truly an act of love to support somebody like that,” Swanson said, allowing a moment of silence for herself to meditate on the thought. “You can love somebody you don’t know.”

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Two months after the first class of students began their education at JAMS, Revela was told she would join them, and, like the young girl Swanson’s church sponsored, she could not believe it. Revela moved into JAMS and began high school.

Expecting the schoolmasters to be donned in business wear, Revela, like many of the other girls, was in shock when Wasonga and Otieno arrived in muddy jeans and casual shirts.

“This is our professor?” she had thought, laughing. Wasonga, who had picked up the other children months before in similar attire, reveled in the joy her appearance brought to the girls, laughing as she recalled the moment.

While she was away at school, Revela received a phone call from her father. He was sick — he would be OK, he said, but he was sick.

That was the last time Revela would speak with him.

When she returned to Muhoroni, she was told he was dead. In Africa, the healthcare system does not provide much information, Revela explained.

Her mother died when she was 8 years old. The last time she saw her was in the hospital. At age 16, her father died. She was orphaned. Then, her sister died.

“You see them in the hospital, and there’s no information,” Revela said.

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She returned to JAMS to finish her education with a growing interest in the medical field.

Public administration professor Kurt Thurmaier and his wife sponsored Revela throughout high school, and when Revela’s talents were being wasted after her high school graduation, they decided to act.

The couple, whose daughter previously studied nursing, decided to look for ways to bring Revela to NIU.

“We are confident that Revela can succeed [like our daughter],” Thurmaier said. “That is a good investment for us, for Revela and for NIU. Her success helps us achieve NIU’s mission of serving the world, making it a better place. Revela’s work as a nurse will do that.”

Revela stepped foot on campus for the first time the weekend before classes began in Fall 2016.

The number of cars and the side of the road they drove on were an immediate shock. Another shock came when Revela realized she would have to become familiar with computers and other technology.

Prior to coming to NIU, she had touched a computer only once in her life, she said. The wealth of medical knowledge she could now access amazed her.

“People in my community couldn’t go to high school, [and] thinking about that was scary,” Revela said.

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Junior vocal performance major Darren Figgins was also shaped by JAMS, though his experience was through volunteerism.

Sitting in a class taught by Wasonga, Figgins was inspired by the work his professor shared with him one day and went home to consult his parents about the possibility of going to Africa to teach music for a summer.

Figgins had been offered a number of opportunities that would enhance his music resume, and he couldn’t decide between those and Africa. He was posed a question by his grandmother that made the decision easy.

“My grandma looked at me and said, ‘If your life was going to end after this summer, which would you regret not doing?’” Figgins said, smiling. “I knew I had to go teach the girls after that.”

Figgins was amazed by the road to JAMS. Climbing a camouflaged dirt road up a hill all while being drenched in rain, Figgins, who was used to paved American roads, feared he might not make it to the girls.

He did, however, and was given one week to prepare them for Kenyan music festivals.

Figgins cannot reduce his experience to one lesson, he said, adding that he and the girls traded lessons all the time. He taught them music and, in turn, they taught him to wash his clothes by hand.

“The level of trust and confidence they had in me the moment I arrived from thousands of miles away was absurd,” Figgins said, unable to contain the laughter inside of his smile. “But we shared that.”

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Today, the school is educating more than nine times the number of girls in its first graduating class, and Otieno and Wasonga hope to be able to bring more young graduates to NIU through scholarships.

The couple spends the academic year living in a three-bedroom house but moves back to a single-room space at JAMS during the summer and winter breaks to spend time with the girls enrolled.

They do not have much money but are spiritually wealthy, Otieno said.

“It’s taught me to be more selfless,” he said, crossing his arms with certainty. “I never imagined I was rich, but we’ve made a difference in so many lives.”

Wasonga and Otieno smiled thinking about all Revela has accomplished — she embodies the girls whose lives they change. Persistence, patience and a drive to learn are demonstrated by her unending will to overcome challenges, Swanson said, just like the girls Figgins described from his time in Africa, years after Revela arrived at NIU.

“JAMS, what they do there is amazing,” Revela said. “They’re changing people’s lives every day. Imagine, 160 girls graduating high school who never thought that was an option.”

Revela never thought that was an option. From not knowing if she would attend high school and being orphaned by age 16, she is now a woman whose dreams would not have been possible without the generosity of strangers.

She has never stopped taking steps, big or small, and her next steps will be across the graduation stage in May at the Convocation Center.