Why she flew back
February 3, 2014 2 Comments
Before Sara Jo Malinske (’13) graduated from JMU last May, her plane ticket was bought, her after-graduation plans solidified. She was headed back to Kenya.
The prior summer Sara Jo had studied abroad through the university’s international program, “JMU in Kenya.” During the two-week volunteer opportunity at the end of her Study Abroad, she connected with Daraja, a school for girls, located near Nanyuki. Landing back at JFK afterward, her immediate thought was “how do I get back to Kenya.”
So with diploma in hand, Sara Jo headed back to a place and people she had come to love.
Daraja, a word in Swahili meaning ‘bridge,’ is a four-year old secondary boarding school for young Kenyan girls. Here bright, young girls are given what Sara Jo calls “equality of opportunity.”
The culture of Kenya, like so many places in the world, values boys above girls. It’s cultural — and it’s deeply embedded, Sara Jo says. Education is also highly sought in Kenya and expensive, particularly secondary education. When a family manages to scrape together money for a child to attend school, most often a son is chosen. Even when a family of all daughters finds the money for education, they will often opt to send a neighbor’s son instead of their own daughter.
Daraja is trying to change that.
The school, a nonprofit, offers full scholarships to 26 girls each year and is funded entirely through donations and fundraising. To find the right girls, the school’s administrators tour the country looking for girls with academic promise, leadership skills — and no other way to attend school.
“They take the girls who fall through the cracks,” Sara Jo says.
Many of these young girls come from traumatic circumstances, often suffering poverty or abuse. “They all have stories that will break your heart,” she says, “but in the end, they are just teenage girls.”
Sara Jo’s favorite part of her Kenyan time was hanging out with them every chance she had. And learning to know the girls was her catalyst for returning to Kenya. On her first night in Kenya, she was told that some visitors come and see the poverty, the problems; others see the connection. “I was one of those,” she says. “I had a real pulling feeling.”
She was amazed by the girls she met. They love school, she says. “They’re in classes all morning and afternoon, and additional forums in the evening, but they will wake up at 4 a.m. to study.”
“You realize how important it is to have a book and learn.”
Despite the obstacles these girls face, they see their circumstance as “just the way it is,” but not a roadblock. “Their identity is their triumph,” Sara Jo says. “They’re very happy.”
And they are successful. At the end of their education at Daraja, every girl — in fact, every student in Kenya — takes the KCSE exam, a grueling three-week long examination that covers every subject they have ever studied. Each subject, Sara says, has three parts, and each part takes up to three hours to complete.
For those students scoring exceptionally high, the Kenyan government pays their university tuition. Others apply for scholarships. Of the first group of Daraja graduates, eight are enrolled in Kenyan universities with full financial support. One of those, Leila, “is brilliant. She is studying in a bio technology field,” Sara Jo says.
Empowering girls like the Daraja girls is something Sara Jo is passionate about. It’s why she flew back to Kenya just after graduation as an intern. Returning, she wanted a part in encouraging the gender equality and opportunity for these girls, and girls elsewhere. Having studied gender equality as a sociology student at JMU, she believes that the best way to achieve such is for people like Leila to show the world what she can do. Such social change takes time,she knows, but showing others what’s possible for girls to achieve is a good, solid step.
As a volunteer, Sara asked Daraja’s founders how she could help. What they needed most was to get the word out to others, so Sara Jo used social media and email to tell others about Daraja and to recruit partnerships.
“I read once that if you have a great idea, you need to talk to everybody you know and 5 percent will care.”
Among her successes was creating a connection with United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative.
Since returning in December from her second trip to Kenya, Sara Jo, who says of herself “I never stop,” is working to promote fair trade through Harrisonburg’s Ten Thousand Villages. She’s also working with the National Coalition of Girls Schools, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit.
And she works at Massanutten Resort feeding her love of being outdoors, a love she managed to satiate while in Africa. In addition to scaling Mt. Kenya and Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, she whitewater rafted on the Zambezi River and hung off the edge of Victoria Falls in Zambia.
But it was the girls who changed and inspired her. “They are bursting at the seams to change the world,” she says. “Every chance I had, I hung out with the girls.”
Before coming to JMU, she had no idea she’d end up scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro or supporting the changing lives of Kenyan girls. “When I came to Springboard,” she says, “I had no idea.” But two Alternative Spring Break trips, one to Honduras and another to the Florida Keys, plus her transformative Study Abroad changed all that. Studying Abroad in Kenya “gave me focus,” she says.
And now her focus is again on Kenya — and how soon she can get back again.