From humble beginnings in Kenya to an urban Ivy League campus, sophomore Winnie Kerubo Mokaya’s journey to the University of Pennsylvania is an international student recruitment success story.
Born in Nairobi, Mokaya’s early childhood was spent in the town of Kisii in southwestern Kenya. The memories of that time sting still.
“I hated the fact that I was an “mshamba -- shady, unknowledgeable” when I was younger,” Mokaya remembers. “I appreciate that aspect of my life now. I was able to connect with my people, learn our customs- dying customs sadly- and learn the language. I can connect with people in my village just as well as I can with my friends in Nairobi.”
Although her parents were educators, they barely made enough to support the family of seven. The scarcity of high quality education in public schools forced her mother and father to pay for private education.
“They say fortune knocks once on every man’s door. Well, I think it knocked more than once on mine,” Mokaya recalls. “I have made it from one level to another without knowing what the future held for me. Being admitted to Precious Blood Secondary School [in Nairobi] is one of my most memorable moments in life.”
It took all the inner strength she could summon to hold her head high among classmates from well-to-do families. She longed for snacks at recess, new shoes, socks and a crisp school uniform, but didn’t always have them.
Fast forward to Mokaya’s second year of high school. At a conference hosted by the NGO Zawadi Africa Education Fund, Mokaya learned about scholarships for academically gifted African girls from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue higher education in the United States.
Elisabeth O’Connell, associate dean for international admissions at Penn, works with the Zawadi Foundation to reach out to African students. She travels to sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world with colleagues from schools like Yale and Brown, presenting information to international students about how to apply to American universities.
“We have amazing young women from Kenya on the campus, who have benefited from the Zawadi program,” O’Connell says. “It helps them with everything from mentorship programs to internships.”
Through Zawadi Africa, Mokaya applied to as many as five U.S. colleges including Penn where she accepted a full financial-aid award.
Mokaya has soared both academically and outside the classroom. She was selected to be a member of the Penn World Scholars program, works with academically based community service classes, serves as an outreach coordinator with Amnesty International, is a mentor with Upward Bound’s Dana How Scholars and was a freshman representative with the Penn African Students Association.
Mokaya says her first year at Penn has been awesome.
“I immersed myself in the culture, the traditions and the opportunities,” she says. “I knew I was ready once I got the acceptance letter. I was worried as all freshmen, I guess, about my grades…whether I would live up to the Ivy League standards. But it all went well.”