It might take a village to raise a child, but for hundreds of young girls in rural Kenya, it also takes the commitment of two NIU professors who this year are honored as the 2016 Presidential Engagement Professors.
Teresa Wasonga and Andrew Otieno are a husband-and-wife team whose accomplishments include building and supporting a school for girls in a country where few young women graduate from high school and fewer still go on to college.
They do both at the Jane Adeny Memorial School (JAMS) in Muhoroni, Kenya, where academic rigor is matched by the challenges of running a self-sustaining residential academy.
And while the school is their best-known accomplishment, supporters say Wasonga and Otieno live their commitment to engagement in all other aspects of their work, both here and abroad.
A professor in the College of Education’s Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, Teresa Wasonga is known as a creator of new school leaders. She is a much-sought-after mentor for students who aspire to be principals and superintendents, and those fortunate enough to come under her tutelage describe her as having had a powerful impact on their lives.
“Dr. Wasonga taught me to co-create leadership,” wrote Ehren Jarrett, currently superintendent for the Rockford Public Schools. “In my five years in this position, our district has seen significant improvement in student achievement and district relationships, and that is largely due to a commitment to foster reciprocal partnerships in the manner I learned from Dr. Wasonga. On a daily basis, the model of co-creation that she taught impacts my own leadership style.”
Wasonga’s supporters frequently mention how seamlessly she moves from curricular and leadership issues to the practical considerations involved in sustaining a facility where more than 100 young girls live and study. Among the issues she tackles is a dairy operation at the school, where milk provides both nutrition and a way to earn money.
“Our partnership at JAMS is focused on using an eight cow dairy to generate income and teach lessons in entrepreneurship,” wrote Amanda Adare, executive director of Venture Dairy Development. “Teresa’s commitment to our partnership has allowed us to turn over management of the dairy operation to the school a year ahead of schedule. And she has used this project to further educate across the country, creating regional, national and international change.”
NIU students praise Wasonga for the way she extends the reach of her school in Kenya to augment the experiences of her students in the United States. Jill Sanderson, a student and mother of two young children, yearned to help the girls at JAMS but could not afford an overseas trip. Instead, Sanderson explained, Wasonga created a special internship for her that involved raising money for the school through a benefit concert.
“I knew nothing about fundraising, but Teresa has a way of helping people believe in themselves,” Sanderson wrote. “In the end, we raised more than $7,000, and I learned how to do event planning and fund development. Teresa taught us that when we start an impossible feat, to look around at all the people willing to pitch in and soon the impossible will be done. That’s what she’s done in Kenya, and that’s what I learned from her here.”
Indeed, the number of people and organizations that “pitch in” to keep JAMS running is nothing short of impressive. From Rotary groups in the Chicago suburbs and an international book-sharing organization to an NIU student chapter and NIU alumni who have volunteered to teach sex education and memoir writing to the JAMS students, Wasonga has impressed supporters as a master partnership creator.
Yet in spite of the many accolades heaped upon her by supporters across the globe, students at the JAMS school say Teresa Wasonga is a remarkably humble person who makes others feel important.
“No one could tell she is a professor just to look at her,” wrote JAMS student Lynnet Magina. “She can wake up and clean the whole compound by herself and never tell anyone. Most of us here have no parents, no one to support us, but thanks to Professor Teresa and her generous, selfless heart, some of us are actually headed to college.”
Andrew Otieno is a celebrated professor of technology whose expertise is much in demand across the country and around the world. Student teams under his leadership have received top honors at engineering design competitions, and he has been invited to several other countries to teach professors about the wonders of senior design projects.
Otieno’s industry collaborations run far and wide, including those with Caterpillar, Scot Industries and IDEAL Industries. In short, he models successful engineering practice and engagement principles for his department and college.
At the same time, Otieno is committed to making life better for those in developing countries.
Ten years ago, he founded the NIU chapter of Engineers Without Borders, and soon they were working on a clean water project at an orphanage in Honduras.
From there, Otieno and his students worked on solar lighting and heating solutions at a secondary school in Tanzania. The solar lights in particular have had a strong impact at the school, since students there can now study at night. More than 100 NIU students have been involved in the Tanzania project, either on the design side or in actual installation work on site.
In addition to teaching his students how to create technology for developing countries, Dr. Otieno also strives to teach them about need closer to home. He organizes an annual shoe drive each year called “A Day Without Shoes,” and uses the event to drive home messages about privilege and want.
“No matter what he’s teaching, Dr. Otieno takes the opportunity to make sure we understand what’s needed in developing countries,” wrote a former student. “So when we built our BUV project (Basic Utility Vehicle), he emphasized the need to make it as basic as possible to allow for ease of repair in countries without access to good roads OR good tools.”
“What Dr. Otieno teaches goes beyond the realm of engineering,” wrote former student Emily DeDisschop. “When we were building solar lights for the school in Tanzania, he made sure we knew that the girls have to study at night in order to pass their college entrance exams, and how those exams are ‘make-or-break’ in terms of their futures. That certainly placed a much higher value on the assignment than a typical test or senior project.”
Together with his wife and fellow Presidential Engagement Professor recipient Teresa Wasonga, Otieno has made a lifetime commitment to the girls of rural Muhoroni, Kenya, most of whom have been orphaned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
To ensure that the girls receive an education, Otieno and Wasonga built and support the Jane Adeny Memorial School. Otieno visits several times a year, bringing his engineer’s skill to the maintenance and expansion of school buildings and systems.
“Once, when we were on our way back from Tanzania, Dr. Otieno took us to Kenya to show us the school,” wrote a former student. “We were all exhausted – most of all him – but as soon as we got there, he convinced us to pick up brushes and paint the school. He taught us a lot about engineering, but also he taught us that it is everyone’s responsibility to focus on the common good.”