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United World Colleges open doors for Kenyan youth

Claire Okatch
Claire Okatch. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

When Claire Okatch got the news that she was destined to go to Moi Girls Secondary in Eldoret, her parents had to scramble to find the fees.

“They managed for a term or two, but I knew how hard they struggled for me,” says Claire who wasn’t alone among her peers who had difficulty covering school fees.

“Many girls got sent home. To this day, I don’t know why I wasn’t one of them,” says the girl who got straight A’s all the way through secondary and also started up the school’s first student fund raising initiative.

“It was called Raising Up Young Achievers or RUYA,” says Claire who in a year and a half raised more than a million shillings. “RUYA helped to bring back so many girls to school,” says Claire who also managed to graduate debt-free.

But how was she going to continue with her education? “A family friend told us about UWC, the United World Colleges, which provides scholarships for students between the ages 14 to 18 to go for an International Baccalaureate,” says Claire who got her IB in 2012 after studying at the UWC of Singapore.

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Explaining that the IB is somewhat like A levels in the British system, Davinder Sikand says it’s much tougher. “You take six courses not three, and you have to complete a special project and a substantial paper to go with it. But once you have the IB, you can easily get into any of the top universities in the world,” adds Mr Sikand who is another UWC fund recipient.

Sikand went to Atlantic College in Wales after which he eventually went to Northwestern University’s prestigious Kellogg School of Business for an MBA. And Claire went to New York University in Abu Dhabi after completing her IB in Singapore.

Now she and Davinder are both volunteers on UWC’s Kenya National Committee which selects worthy Kenyan youth who need full-funding to go for the IB.

“Currently, we are accepting applications for slots in 18 schools that have said they are willing to accept and fund the IB course for one Kenyan youth each,” says Joan Sikand, who also volunteers on the National Committee.

“But the deadline for receiving applications is coming up fast. It’s January 20 in fact. So we would like students to go to our website [www.ke.uwc.org] and download the application form,” adds Joan who admits the best applicants are ones who have completed Form 4.

“We have 18 countries with schools affiliated with UWC,” says Claire who notes that most of them are in Europe and America, but there are also UWC schools in Japan, China, Thailand, India and Hong Kong as well as Singapore. “There’s even one in Tanzania, but someone can find out all those details on the website,” she adds.

Not all the schools supply full-scholarships every year, and not all those who take part in UWC’s program are funding recipients. “The IB programs are so appealing that some youth want to participate in UWC’s IB course whose parents can afford to pay for it,” says Joan. “But they must apply just like everybody else,” she adds.

UWC didn’t provide Claire with a scholarship to go on to NYU-Abu Dhabi, “I got one from the university itself which covered all four years of my undergraduate education,” she says.

“Students with an IB to their credit rarely have a problem getting into the top schools,” says Mr Sikand who first heard about the UWC in ‘The Reader’s Digest’.

“I read a story about Atlantic College and its Outward Bound program, which I really wanted to do,” says Sikand who admits it was the OB program that inspired him to learn more about UWC which was also mentioned in The Digest. Now both he and his wife are hopeful that many Kenyan kids will apply for the UWC scholarship.

Started right after World War II when people were giving serious thought to how best to ensure there would never be a World War III. “A German named Kurt Hahn started the United World Colleges,” says Claire.

“He believed wars were fought largely because people didn’t understand one another. He felt the greatest need was for education and for making enlightening opportunities available to young people who still had open minds (unlike some adults) and who were willing to think about how to solve problems facing the world,” she adds.

Describing UWC as a “movement” started in the late 1940s, she says it’s been growing ever.

But she admits funding is becoming a challenge since volunteers like herself have been succeed in raising public awareness of UWC which has meant that more people are applying for its scholarships.

“The program was initially endowed by Hahn and his friends. Now it’s funded by a combination of individual donors and the colleges affiliated with it,” says Claire who graduated from NYU in 2016 and went straight to work for the university.

But having majored in public policy and social research with a minor in Mandarin, Claire also does consultancy work using her knowledge of Chinese to liaise between Western, local and Chinese corporations.

She may be going back to graduate school very soon, but not before the January 20 deadline. And not before 19 worthy Kenyan applicants become members of the UWC family.

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