Irene Awino makes heavy sacrifices to pursue an education and help her native Kenya
It’s Sept. 21 and Irene Awino’s eighth day in the U.S. She’s up early and begins her morning with a quick scan of the day’s headlines. The words isolate themselves on the page:
Westgate shopping mall.
She calls her husband. Somewhere in the 9,230 miles between them, the connection is broken.
On this day, as an internal terrorist attack occurs at a mall Irene and her family frequently visit, everything she’s sacrificed to come here no longer matters. But when the news of her family’s safety reaches her, she becomes more determined than ever to continue her education in the U.S. and return to Kenya to be a driving force for political peace and progress.
Awino grew up in a village called Siaya, just north of Kisumu, the third largest town in Kenya. Though currently a greatly impoverished region of the country, Awino believes the town is sitting on a gold mine of untapped resources and unlimited potential. One day she will return to her home village to run for political office but for now she’s focused on her education.
“I wanted a quality education and to improve my prospects for getting a better job,” she said. Her words trail off in a tone of self-critical hesitance as her gaze meets the edge of the table in front of her. She pauses. “I tell myself it was a worthy sacrifice.”
She came to University of Oregon this September to enroll in the media studies master’s program after earning a similar degree in communication studies from the University of Nairobi in 2007.
Upon earning her first degree, she worked in the editorial departments of several leading East African dailies for six years but always dreamed of something more.
That’s when she met Leslie Steeves.
Steeves is the associate dean for graduate affairs and research in the School of Journalism and Communication.
Steeves has worked, studied and traveled in various countries in West and East Africa, including teaching for a year at the University of Nairobi in 1991. A former colleague recommended Awino to Steeves, and after months of communication, Steeves helped Awino obtain a scholarship to enroll in the master’s program this year.
“In Kenya there’s no university that offers the same quality of doctoral-level coursework that she can get here,” Steeves said. “So hopefully people like Irene can go back to build those types of programs and take what she learns here back to Kenya.”
Awino’s passion for journalism stems from her dreams of influencing her hometown, where she believes media illiteracy is one of the biggest obstacles the country faces in creating responsive leadership. When she returns to Nairobi she will first become a communications professor, as media professors in Kenya are few and far between.
Eventually, she also hopes to build a communications research center in Kisumu to help citizens better understand their rights and boost civic engagement in the local and national government.
“The media system is very political back home,” she said. “Politics are not about ideologies, but ethnicity. As journalists, we put our loyalty with our tribes.”
These journalistic practices are why Awino is passionate about pushing Kenya’s media to be less responsive to politically set agendas and create a press more tenacious in its pursuit of full independence.
The end goal for Awino is to run for local governor.
“I don’t know where this interest in politics came from,” Awino said. “But there are a lot of issues that need the right leadership, and I know the issues that affect the people of Kisumu.”
Despite her enthusiasm to be studying in the U.S., the sacrifices Awino had to make to be here far surpass the average college student. The trajectory to pursue a Ph.D. may keep Irene away from her husband and two young children, who are back home in Nairobi, for up to five years.
“The time I’ve been here has not been easy,” Awino said. As if finally succumbing to the exhaustion of the last four months, her chin lowers and her gaze once again retreats downward. “I feel like I’m doing a lot of injustice to my sons by leaving them there.”
She returned home to Nairobi on Dec. 6 to spend time with her family but is now back for winter term to resume her studies. Her next step is to bring her children and husband here to the U.S.
“There are students here with families,” she said, repetitively pressing her index finger into the table. “I realized I can have them here. If I can’t bring them here I won’t continue with the education. I’m supposed to be with my children.”
But to go home would mean giving up a dream that Awino has waited years to pursue and opportunities that an American university could open up for her professional career. She knows she won’t give up without a fight — there’s too much she owes to her home country.
“I want to give back to the people of Kisumu,” she said. “They deserve better.”