This past Wednesday, I graduated from arguably the best journalism graduate school in the world. Attending the school and living in New York City has been a truly humbling experience when I reflect on my background. It is nothing short of God’s grace that I made it through.
Picture this, in primary school, it was routine to carry cow dung to school and clay soil to use for smearing the floor of our classrooms to keep off jiggers. It was standard practice to carry Mauritius thorns to fence the school during the holidays. Some male teachers always asked us to go to the forest to fetch tiny seeds of the black wattle tree. Such errands were not frowned upon by the community and were considered normal. High schools were like voluntary jails, where we ate githeri, beans and porridge that were more like poison. only God knows how we survived. Don’t even get me started on the intellectual dearth among students during my undergraduate years.
So, after a less than inspiring system, I found myself in one of America’s premium Ivy League institutions, which was such a revelation. When you bump into a 19-year-old who talks about Karl Marx’s work like that is what he was born to do, you are in for trouble, especially if you have not read Das Kapital and you are university graduate. When you meet a 22 -ear-old who is not only a Soren Kierkegaard expert, but has her own ideas about existentialism, you feel like asking for a refund from your undergrad university.
It has been a tough year with crushing school work, loneliness and poverty. But it was an experience I will savour for the rest of my life. The university attracts some of the best students from across the world (I was one of three Kenyans there, and I am not the brightest bulb in the room) and its faculty is comprised of people who have climbed to the highest rung of American journalism. The school’s alumni from the 113 years of its existence have contributed immensely to its growth and quest for excellence in American journalism.
What makes the so-called Ivy League institutions great is more in the mind than in the facilities as we are wont to think. Most of the American universities and the West generally have quaint buildings, built more than a century ago. Unlike in Kenya where there is a rush for skyscrapers and massive real estate projects undertaken by universities without corresponding growth in quality, top universities in the West are committed to quality and research. The University of Nairobi’s main campus is far larger than Columbia University, but the quality of education in the two is incomparable. And, it is has nothing to do with the obvious fact that America is a First World country.
What I noticed is that professors in the US are committed to delivery. They take their work seriously. There are enough checks. There has not been a single instance of a lecturer disappearing with marks and students having to chase him around, or risk missing the ceremony. I know of up to five friends who missed their graduation because of misplaced marks or because the lecturer just lost their scores and was not even apologetic. Here, professionalism is an automatic expectation.
Another important lesson is that there is power in diversity. Diversity is what powers the US. In the school, I met students from all over the world - from different cultural and religious backgrounds - which is truly mind-blowing. At a time when Cord and Jubilee can’t even mourn public figures from either side of the political divide without degenerating into insults, maybe we should borrow from America’s experiment in diversity.
But the most important lesson is about giving back. The school’s endowment is $9.6 billion (Sh960 billion), most of which comes from individuals, the alumni and the school’s investment. The school’s investment is mainly in real estate in the prime Manhattan borough of New York City. I met very old people who donate millions to the school. Since they know they will die one day, why not give part of their wealth to help poor people like Silas Nyanchwani.
The rich in Africa are mostly politicians, whose wealth is largely stolen and they would die protecting it. Most of the rich people in the West have made their money genuinely and are willing to give it away. And they care about their legacy, the reason they give it to worthy causes that help humanity.
That is a challenge for us all. Give back, where you can.