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A first-generation student story: Steve Peifer

October 24, 2018

‘Uncool’ alumnus Peifer discovers life lessons, a 20-foot inflated mouse at NIU

What Steve Peifer remembers most from his time at Northern Illinois University is the grace he was given.

That, and quite a few stories involving practical jokes, his failed attempts at being “cool,” betting on how soon classmates would nod off in class, the 20-foot inflated mouse his roommate brought home…

Steve Peifer

Well, mostly, it’s grace.

“I just felt there was a lot of grace for me as a stupid kid that didn’t have parents that went to college and didn’t know how it was supposed to work,” remembered Peifer, an Arlington Heights native who earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science and government from NIU in 1977 and became the first in his family to earn a college degree.

“I was always proud that I went to NIU.”

Peifer went on to become an international hero, although he’s not quite comfortable with the description. Once a corporate manager overseeing 9,000 computer software consultants, he created Kenya Kids Can in 2002 under the nonprofit organization Africa Inland Mission.

The organization now feeds more than 16,000 children and provides computer training to impoverished students. He also wrote the book, “A Dream So Big: Our Unlikely Journey to End the Tears of Hunger,” inspired by a sobbing young girl’s reaction to the computer center he built. “I never had a dream so big,” she told him.

Peifer was awarded the CNN Heroes Award for Championing Children in 2007, the 2007 Yale Counseling Award and the 2010 NACAC Excellence in Education Award—a high honor given to former first lady Michelle Obama in 2014.

All this, and he still often feels like that uncool kid.

“I just felt lucky, ya know. I just felt I was lucky to be at Northern Illinois University,” he said during a recent visit to campus. “I think the thing in life is that you think you’re the only one, and you go, ‘I’m the one that’s not cool,’ and I was the one that’s not cool.”

He goes on to tell a story about how he somehow ended up as student body president back in high school. After the election, someone told him, “Finally a victory for the uncool people.”

“I had only like 20 minutes to think I was cool,” he said.

But back to what he’s learned through the years—which, by the way, culminated in his current position as vice president of College Counseling at KD College Prep in Wellington, Florida.

“I think the default is to think everybody else knows what they’re doing,” he said. “The truth is everybody is trying to figure it out. …Find an environment where you’re going to do your best work and explore. Who knows what you’re going to end up doing?”

Everything Peifer’s done—including adopting now high school-age twins from Kenya with his wife, Nancy—he never expected to do. The couple also has two grown children.

They’d gone on a mission trip to Kenya after losing a child on the eighth day after his birth due to a genetic disorder called trisomy 13. That trip led to the eventual creation of Kenya Kids Can, as well as the adoption of their twins.

“I went to Africa because I didn’t want to face people anymore. I didn’t want people to ask me how I’m doing. I didn’t want to talk about it,” Peifer remembered. “My wife had always wanted to go. I just wanted to help her. I had no good intentions. It’s embarrassing that I’ve gotten attention because I was not someone who cared.”

That changed when he saw children lying on a mud floor to avoid fainting. They’d last eaten Monday. It was Thursday. Peifer vowed then to help.

Along with creating Kenya Kids Can, Peifer previously served as the director of college counseling at a Christian boarding school in Kenya.

As part of the job, he took on baboons jumping on the roof and scaring kids. He’d use a bag of rocks and a slingshot to keep them away.

“I ran a 9,000-employee consulting firm. Now I’m shooting at baboons and, yet, it wasn’t that dissimilar,” he said.

The sense of humor, perhaps, comes from his mother, a performer on a radio show before becoming a housewife. Although, Peifer said, “I wouldn’t want to blame my humor on anyone. I remember dinners where everybody was trying to get the zinger.”

Peifer’s father started as a stock boy for a paper company, went off to war and retired as vice president and general manager of that company. His older siblings tried college for awhile, but never finished.

After he’d wrapped up two years, his parents were confident enough to invest in his younger sister, who also earned a degree. “I felt like I paved the way,” Peifer said.

Still, his father would have preferred he earn a degree in business.

But one class with Gary Glenn—a distinguished teaching professor emeritus of political science from NIU who became Peifer’s mentor—and his fate was sealed. Glenn didn’t suffer fools. He taught Peifer to think critically. “Anyone can regurgitate information,” he told him. “Wisdom is knowing what’s important.”

“I think being able to think and communicate in clear and concise ways is as important as accounting and finance,” Peifer said.

He also learned to study in the library, not the dorm, after turning in a lackluster paper to his English teacher. “You had such a great intro,” she told him, “and then what happened?”

He’d explained that a couple of friends had come over and… “Thank you for being honest,” she said, giving him an A for the first two paragraphs and an F for the end. She allowed him to redo it.

“There was just grace in that, and it taught me in life,” he said, adding it was one of numerous lessons he learned on campus.

“I’m grateful for Northern. It equipped me in so many ways. I go to colleges where there are many entitled students. Northern kids aren’t entitled. That’s really a good thing,” he said. “Northern kids are hungry. They’re not as economically advantaged as private school kids. You’ve got kids going for it.”

He tells the students he advises they’re going to be uncomfortable at first, but to hang in there. Don’t know what you’re going to major in?

“Good, 80 percent of people change their major, whether you go to Harvard or Hartford Community College,” he said.  “I try to reassure kids it’s very healthy to not know. The only reason to know at 17 is at Thanksgiving when Aunt Martha says, ‘What are you going to major in? Can you pass the potatoes?’”