Bridge Alumni Natasha, begins University in the US
In a milestone moment, the hallways of an elite US university are now trodden by a Bridge Alumni from the Kawangware slum. Natasha Wanjiru wants to change the world and hopes that her university education will bring her one step closer to doing so.
Brought up by a single parent in one of Kenya’s most impoverished communities, Natasha Wanjiru didn’t have high expectations for her future. When her elder brother enrolled in high school, her mother – who was working as a casual labourer – had to choose which child to educate and as with so many families she chose to educate her son. Natasha hadn’t performed that well in class previously and so having made the decision, her mother took her out of the school system. Like many children out of school in Kenya, Natasha spent her days in the alleys of her community; playing with other out of school children – many of whom would be destined to stay trapped in the cycle of poverty they were born into.
Not long afterwards; a new school opened in her community and her mother heard positive reports from her neighbours. She decided to enrol Natasha. At Bridge Kabiria, in the outskirts of Nairobi, Natasha settled down to concentrate on her studies and quickly found that she was a good student. After just one term, she had improved significantly – not only did she enjoy her lessons but she was good at them and was encouraged by her teacher and her classmates. She felt she was actually learning in her new school; there were good materials and kind teachers who used praise and encouragement rather than physical punishment to motivate the class. Her teachers spent most of the lessons interacting with her and her classmates and giving feedback – something she hadn’t seen before. As the weeks passed her view of going to school and its purpose changed and she became motivated to do well.
“I became more determined and focused. Before that point, I went to school just to be there as a formality but then I saw that I was changing, I could do more and I was learning about new things – it was exciting,” says Natasha.
In 2015, Natasha sat the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE); the primary school exit exams which are a big moment for any child. Good marks determine what kind of secondary school you can attend and from there your future is often mapped out. Amazingly, she was among the top performers in the country, scoring 365 out of 500 marks. Achieving such high marks in the KCPE was unusual for children in Natasha’s community; most dropped out before finishing primary school, often unable to read and write. It is even more unusual in the case of girls who can find themselves married or pregnant before reaching the final year of primary school. For those that do well in the KCPE, their education often ends there. The cost associated with secondary school can be prohibitive; and for girls the expectations of marriage and family looms.
However, for Natasha the story was going to be different. After doing well in the KCPE she was determined to continue her education. She was lucky that her teachers and her family were fully behind her. It was because of this encouragement that she decided to apply for a US scholarship, something she would never have dreamed of before Bridge. Her outstanding KCPE performance earned her a scholarship to study at Episcopal High School in Virginia, USA. No other members of her community had been to the US, or even left Kenya. For weeks before school started, her friends and neighbours celebrated her achievements. They were proud for not only Natasha but for their community, most hadn’t finished primary school let alone secondary school.
Before she took a flight to the US, she had barely left Nairobi county. It was a big journey for any child and she was nervous. But her mother pushed her to take the opportunity that her hard work had won her. Looking back at her journey, Natasha has an enduring respect for her mum, the hero in her life who she puts on a pedestal.
“She’s courageous and someone who struggled to do her best and make sure her daughter believed in herself. She’s my role model and a woman of steel who has endured suffering with grace and dignity to ensure that her children get the best out of this life. I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for her sacrifices”.
Once Natasha arrived in the US, Episcopal High School was a world away from home; and took a long time for her to adjust to, everything about it was different. She missed home and her friends, but she got used to her new school, and as time passed she made new friends. Life was a steep learning curve, not only in class but also in school more generally. She had to balance learning about a new culture, new people and new ways of doing things with her studies . Despite being thousands of miles away she thought of home often.
One of the things that Natasha is most proud of from her time at Episcopal, is her Change-4- Change initiative; supporting girls back in Kenya to go to school.
“As I landed in the US, I knew that I had been given the opportunity of a lifetime. Back home, I had not only seen, but also experienced, what it feels like to not go to school and feel trapped”
“Now that I had this incredible opportunity, I knew for sure that I could use my position to help make a difference in other children’s lives. I know how it feels when you realize that someone, somewhere, cares about your future.”
Change-4-Change grew steadily and now it’s supporting 45 girls to go to primary school. Natasha hopes that the beneficiaries of Change-4-Change will take the opportunity it offers them and use it as a platform to succeed: “Its 45 families who will be helped out of poverty and 45 communities who might feel the difference. It’s a good start.
As COVID began to spread in early 2020, Natasha finished high school. She had decided that after four years, she wanted to stay in the american education system if she could and had applied for US colleges. Excitingly, she’d won a place and a scholarship. In September 2020, Natasha reported to Sewanee college in Tennessee to start her studies! She doesn’t know what the future holds but that she hopes to become a social entrepreneur and build upon the work she began in high school: “I want to use the opportunities I have been given to bring change to my community.”
The Journey from Kawangware to Sewanee has not always been smooth sailing but it is one that she is immensely proud of, and rightly so. When Natasha goes back to Kenya during the holidays she stays in her childhood home, where she grew up and acts as a role model and a mentor for other girls in the neighbourhood. Her community is the same as it always was and many of her friends from primary school are now married with children and working as casual labourers. She knows that her circumstances are the combination of both hard work and luck in the sense that most children do not have access to a good primary school, if they have access to school at all. It saddens her to see the out of school children in the alleys she herself used to play in. Natasha knows that like her, those children have an extraordinary amount of potential; but that it’s unlikely they will have the opportunity to realise it.
A good education will enable a child to achieve their potential. A poor education will leave them trapped and without choices or opportunities. In some of the most impoverished communities in Africa, a good education is the difference between being trapped in a cycle of poverty and having the opportunity to escape it. Natasha’s journey is remarkable and yet it shouldn’t be. She had a basic education that every child should have access to. From the alleys of Kawangware to the hallways of Sewanee, Natasha is an inspiration. Her journey shows the power of education; and what is possible when children are given the chance to excel. It will be exciting to watch her future unfold.