Why top students want to study, work abroad

Samson Gachie Muchai of Nyakiambi Secondary school celebrates with friends.
Maryanne Njeri Barasa, the top student in this year’s KCSE wants be admitted at Harvard, the private Ivy League University in Massachusetts, United States to study medicine.

Should Njeri’s dream come true, she hopes to practice in the US.

At 4.5 per cent, Harvard’s acceptance rates is one of the lowest amongst the US’s most prestigious yet exclusive learning institutions, alongside Princeton University which accepts only 5.8 per cent of applications, Columbia University (5.1) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (6.6).

Yet Njeri’s aspirations are well founded and similar to those of thousands of other students who received their KCSE results and now hope to study in prestigious foreign universities and colleges.

Her plans are laid out. “I know an organisation that helps students apply for scholarships,” she said.

The programme, the Kenya Scholar Access Program (KenSAP) has successfully placed some 197 Kenyan students in US and Canadian colleges since it was started in 2004.

Each year, KenSAP selects between 15 and 20 students to join the programme and prepares them for American examinations and university application process.

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The Equity Bank Group said last year that their airlift programme to global universities had reached Sh11.13 billion, with 465 students having secured admissions to universities abroad, including Ivy League institutions.

Since inception, the airlift programme has seen top Kenyan students join prestigious institutions like Harvard (22), Yale (13), Stanford University (7), Princeton (7), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (6) and Brown University (7).

“A good number of our scholars are now working globally. Many of the scholars are also finding internship offers in globally competitive corporations thereby opening up opportunities for career development at the global level. Several of these scholars have returned to Kenya after completing their studies,” Equity Bank said on their website about the airlift program.

Popular course

The most popular course among those who were successful in securing scholarships abroad was computer science and biological sciences which has translated to jobs at Fortune 500 companies and others such as Goldman Sachs, Oracle, IMF, Al Jazeera, Pfizer and IBM or at Duolingo. These opportunities would not ordinarily be available to graduates from local universities.

At around 3,000, the number of Kenyans admitted in colleges in the US are anecdotally high and in Africa are only surpassed by Nigeria and Ghana. 

Part of the reason top KCSE achievers opt to pursue their graduate studies abroad has to do with the declining quality of university education.

Dr Emanuel Manyasa, Country Manager of Twaweza East Africa, believes that Kenya’s university system is broken.

“These airlifts are important because we have to accept that our universities are in a crisis and the quality of training has declined so if anything we need to send out people to get top notch training even if some don’t come back. Those who don’t actually send a lot of money home and are almost becoming Kenya’s leading foreign exchange earner,” he said. Leonard Kilekwang’, a Nairobi School alumni who was admitted at Hamilton College for a Bachelor of Arts in Neuroscience and a minor in Economics says that while there are a lot of push factors for the students just out of high school, once they graduate the pull factors are even fewer.

“There is a greater guarantee that you will actually get a job and once you get that job there is better security. It is not so difficult to get a H1B Visa for two periods of three years each,” Kilekwang’ said.

“There are a lot of opportunities. Actually a good number of college graduates get jobs before they graduate and when they do, there is little incentive to come back to Kenya. Here you have to pull some strings to get a job,” he added.

But a significant number of them do opt to return to Kenya and Kilekwang’ is one of them but even then he says, it leaves some people puzzled.

“People fail to understand why I came back. They feel I threw away an opportunity,” he said.

Some schools such as Starehe Boys Centre are actively involved in looking for opportunities for their students outside the country.

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