Young rural villagers previously underserved now have a clear path to education, empowerment and economic opportunity. The young women who make up WE College’s inaugural classes in Kenya’s Narok County are no ordinary students. They’ve overcome incredible hurdles to pursue their education.
Many were expected to drop out of school to provide for their families. Some escaped forced marriages. But all of them protected their studies. The majority were the first women in their families to finish primary and secondary school; when they return home, they will be among the first women in their villages to graduate from college and hold professional jobs. They are, in short, trailblazers.
But it’s not enough for these young women to have access to post-secondary schooling. They need strong role models – they need extraordinary teachers.
Teachers such as Eunice Wanjiku, a leadership manager at WE College, who focuses on her students’ well-being and success beyond the classroom. Students can go to Wanjiku with any problem, and she’ll help them navigate a solution. She says her goal isn’t to teach, but rather to guide.
While her colleagues instruct the next generation of civil engineers who will create clean water projects, nurses who will be front-line medical workers and teachers who will educate and inspire, Wanjiku is responsible for transforming the young girls who enter her classroom into strong leaders who will create their own change.
It’s that promise that drew Margaret Kenyatta, First Lady of Kenya, to WE College for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in July. It was a historic day in our organization’s 25-year journey, marking not only WE’s first post-secondary institution, but also one of the first colleges in the entire Mara region, ensuring that young people from previously underserved rural villages now have a clear path to fulfill their dreams and give back to their communities.
While the celebration lasted one memorable day, the groundwork stretches back 25 years, to WE’s earliest days. When WE first started working in rural Kenya decades ago, we held meetings with community elders. Many of their villages sat at the end of inaccessible dirt roads. Few had running water. Electricity was non-existent. Still, the Maasai and Kipsigis communities had made great personal sacrifices to build mudhut schoolrooms with thatched roofs and pool their scarce funds together to pay for teachers, because they knew that educating the next generation would bring more opportunities.
We approached the elders about a partnership that would create sustainable change through our five-pillar model of development, focusing first on education, as well as clean water, access to health care, food security and economic opportunity. Local leaders, especially women, led the way, mobilizing the communities and taking ownership over the projects.
Soon, our teams were building primary schools in partnership with community leaders and local governments. When students began graduating from those schools in droves, our partnership expanded to secondary schools, making quality, affordable education a reality for tens of thousands. It’s been a journey of shared learning for all of us.
Every day, more than 15,000 students learn in schools built by WE in Kenya. The graduating classes from WE’s secondary schools rank among the top in the county, thanks to incredible leaders such as Wanjiku. We thought our work was done. But again, the elders had more to teach us. They knew the goal was not just to build schools, but also to build human capital for lasting sustainable change – and to do that, our partnership had to grow again.
And that’s why we built WE College, with a focus on technical skills within the faculties of public health, technical studies, medicine, education, civil engineering, business and IT, which will build capacity and boost the local economy.
WE College completes the pipeline from primary school to the types of jobs that will bring long-lasting, sustainable change to the entire region. More than that, it marks an important evolution for our work in Kenya, from two decades spent building schools to empowering the types of leaders who will drive change for decades to come.
As we approach WE’s 25th anniversary, one lesson from our journey is clear: for change to be real and lasting, it has to be sustainable. Teachers across Canada who have brought WE into their classrooms have shaped the next generation of leaders who will take up the mantle of creating a better country and world. That is what sustainability looks like. Now, teachers at WE College are doing the same.
Before Ms. Kenyatta cut the ribbon in front of students, their families and members of the community, she addressed the audience. “We are here to celebrate a dream come true,” she declared. The future of these students – and their communities – is bright.”