I attended Alliance High School, a school in urban Kenya with a sound reputation of being open to international partnerships. While a junior in 2013, I participated in its exchange program and attended a Boston area-school, Brooks School, for two months. In the same year, I attended a summer program, Yale Young Global Scholars Program, run by Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Both experiences were enriching on a personal and academic level and greatly influenced my worldview for the better. Having been exposed to such opportunities while in high school, I was more aware of the college application process, and of the education environment, that of liberal arts, in which I am most comfortable.
Upon my completion of the Education and Social Empowerment Program in Western Kenya, and acceptance into Princeton University, I had eight months before matriculating in Fall 2017. Inspired by my transformative experiences abroad, I spent early 2016 visiting high schools across urban Kenya to share my experiences with, and to inform students of, summer enrichment programs and the college application process. I guided recent high school graduates and students through the college and summer program applications, respectively.
College counseling and summer program mentorship create a cohort of students more aware of what can be accomplished academically. As a student at Alliance, and when giving talks at these 16 urban high schools, I realized the huge opportunities missed by students in rural Kenya and in lower-tier schools, and I endeavored to bridge this gap in summer 2017 with the gracious grant support of the Princeton Class of 1978 Foundation.
With six colleagues studying in different American universities, I visited an additional 22 high schools. While the student populations varied from school to school (in some schools we talked to a grade, while in others we talked to the entire student body), students en masse had a distinct energy. A collective gasp at the flexible and inviting structure of a liberal arts education, or a 750-strong excited cheer at the American dining hall buffet layout made each visit an adventure into the evolving interests and fondest likes of a typical Kenyan high school student.
After the school-wide talks, we often held question and answer sessions with groups of 10-20 students and usually had one-on-ones. In these smaller talks, I found that students acquired a different persona. The shy, hesitant student at the back of the hall emerged as a bold, outspoken student who could share an entire life story and ask difficult university seminar-level questions; I could view these students not only as young mentees, but as peers, who with committed guidance, will ultimately be high achievers.
From the priceless astonishment on students’ faces at how generous American financial aid is, to the many curious questions we received on the challenges we faced in our coming to America, to the warm hospitality with which we were received in most schools, to the gentle but firm rejection we faced in certain schools due to scheduling and/or bureaucratic conflicts, my gap experience was an instrumental insight into what educational empowerment for the youth in Kenya can be. I discovered that while schools are investing in their career counseling departments, school regulations and Ministry of Education policies need to be more welcoming to mentors.
Later, with schools closed for the impending Kenyan general elections, I headed off to Kigali, Rwanda to observe how the Yale Young African Scholars Program runs its weeklong mentorship workshop. I was designing a mentorship network run by pre-university program graduates for high school students that could continue with the high school mentorship visits once my colleagues and I left to resume school. Over the week, I met and interacted with students from all over Africa, learning of the glaring similarities and minute differences in students’ experiences in other African high schools.
Over two years, 40 high schools, 30,000 students, 12+ towns, two capital cities, and dozens of online mentorship sessions, I have realized that across different educational systems, across different national languages, and across different backgrounds, the quest for academic achievement remains vital. It is fundamental, therefore, that the African student, high school or otherwise, challenged on so many fronts, is supported extensively by school administrations, parents, guardians and peer mentors.
Written by Collins Metto, a freshman at Princeton University, who was a participant in the East African Scholars Fund (EASAP).