Hello faithful readers! It has been a busy couple of weeks as we wrap up the scholarship season at Growth Through Learning, and I have plenty to report and a whole series of wonderful stories for my next posts. Today, though, I had tea in Harvard Square with Harriet Kariuki, the dynamic young woman we sponsored at Kabare High School, Kenya, who built on her success to earn a full scholarship to Harvard.
Harriet is the sort of person you like instantly. She was waiting at a table when I arrived, and jumped up with a smile that caught the attention of everyone around us. We had hardly sat down with our drinks when she launched into stories of arriving in Harvard, meeting new teachers, and finding her way around a place entirely different from anything she has known.
Obviously, this year has brought a lot of changes for Harriet. Looking out the window at the crowds shuffling down JFK Street, Harriet explained that the village she comes from is so remote, she used to walk two hours to get to the main town where her school was located. When she got on the plane bound for college, it was the first time she had left home. She admitted the first term had been unsettling, but Harriet is clearly not one to let anything keep her down long. This term, she has found her group of friends, joined a women’s leadership organization, presented at a conference in New York, and discovered a passion for political science and international affairs.
Still, some things haven’t changed. I ask her whether her stipend provides enough pocket money. “I don’t buy anything,” she says, laughing. “I work at the admissions office sometimes, but I send all of my money home to pay for my younger brothers’ school fees. I don’t know…maybe I should buy myself something someday.” She explains that she worked 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week at a bank for the 18 months between her high school graduation and coming to Harvard. It helped assure that her family, whose income is usually limited to what they can earn from picking tea, could catch up on expenses. She’s just enjoying the luxury of college right now, but she laughed when she told me about the day she got her college acceptance letter from Harvard: “I got the letter and the note that showed all of the costs, but I did not yet know if I had the scholarship. My mother saw how expensive it was and told me, ‘if I sell myself, your father, your two brothers and everything we own, it won’t even be enough for the plane flight!”
Fortunately, Harriet was more than qualified for a scholarship. Throughout her high school career, we had watched her come in at the top of her class year after year. She tells me that her days at Kabare had begun with studying at 5:30 am, gone through classes and activities, and finished with studying late at night. The hard work made her the 36th highest ranked student in the entry country on Kenya’s national exams that year.
These days, she says, she still studies hard but not quite so hard as at Kabare. She has developed a weakness for the free movies available over high speed internet in her dorm. As we walk out together, though, she makes it clear that she is just as driven as ever. She has memorized the requirements to earn a Rhodes scholarship at the end of her bachelors degree. She plans to get A’s through the rest of her career at Harvard and asks for tips on essay writing in American Universities. She looks thoughtful when we pause on Mass Ave; “You know, my friends and I heard about Harvard years ago in a report on the top Universities. We wondered what kind of a person could go there, and I said, ‘it’s for people with important parents.’ Now I talk to girls from my home village, and I say, ‘I go to Harvard, and if you get A’s, there is no reason you can’t, too.'”
A quick look at the enrolled students in any Harvard class will confirm that Harvard IS a school for people with important parents, but Harriet’s story reminds us that sometimes the most important people start out in some pretty unexpected places.
A little side note: look for more stories from Harriet in our Spring newsletter later this April.