DeKALB – On campus, 20-year-old Revela Odhuno may look like any other Northern Illinois University student with her backpack and textbooks, but her journey to college is a unique success story.
Odhuno is from Kenya, Africa. After her mother died in 2006 and her father lost his job, times were difficult for Odhuno and her two older sisters. Following primary school, she was hoping to attend high school, but her family could not afford the school fee.
Odhuno planned on retaking her last year of primary school and high school entrance exam, hoping that another year would buy enough time to raise money for high school. Two months passed, and then Odhuno learned of the Jane Adeny Memorial School, a high school for girls in the Nyanza region of Kenya. Odhuno was accepted into the school and attended through a sponsorship by NIU professor Kurt Thurmaier.
After four years of high school, Odhuno was one of the 12 students in the school’s first graduating class. She was accepted into a Kenyan university and was assigned a field of study. The school soon closed because of protests and riots. When Thurmaier discovered this, he suggested Odhuno apply to NIU, where she could follow her dream of becoming a nurse.
Odhuno was accepted into NIU and started classes in August. She resides with JAMS founders and NIU professors Teresa Wasonga and Andrew Otieno in DeKalb, After graduation she plans to return to Kenya, where she can use her nursing degree to improve the healthcare system and help people at home and around the world.
Odhuno met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to discuss JAMS, her education at the school and her goals for the future.
Milton: How did you become a student at JAMS?
Odhuno: The school’s first principal, her husband taught me in primary school. She told the school’s founder, Teresa, my story. I was at home, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. They accepted me into the school. I was told to just come, study. I didn’t know who was paying the fee. All the girls, the students were sponsored. In my third year, I learned who was paying my fee, Professor Kurt Thurmaier.
Milton: What is high school in Kenya like?
Odhuno: In high school, you study 11 subjects: biology, chemistry, history, geography, math, English, religious education, Swahili, physics, agriculture and business. It is standard in every school to teach these 11 subjects. In my country, primary school is funded by the government and is free. High school is very expensive. Most girls finish primary school, get married and pregnant or lack the school fee, so they can’t go to high school. Most girls don’t go to high school. There are more schools for boys and only a few mixed schools. If you score high enough on the national exam, you can receive loans for college. You and your parents just have to find a way to pay for high school.
Milton: How is JAMS different from other schools?
Odhuno: It was very different. They provided everything: the uniform, dorm, blankets, sheets, soap, toothpaste, tooth brush. It was so different. All you have to do is appear, go to class and study. At other schools, you must pay for your dorm and items. Considering my background and having no money, attending JAMS was a great achievement for me.
Milton: What happened at the end of four years of school?
Odhuno: After we finished our classes and took the national exam, we had graduation. Graduation was very special. We wore gowns and had a ceremony. Our family, our parents and guardians, could come. It was a great experience. After four years of intense work and studying, we could celebrate. It was our first time wearing gowns.
Milton: Tell me more about the national exam.
Odhuno: When I was in school, you took the exam in November and results came in February. I received a B, 65 out of 84 points. That means that I could be directly accepted into college. If you receive a C+ or higher, that is very good. You can get a government loan and go to college.
Milton: After high school, did you immediately apply to study at NIU?
Odhuno: No, I spent one year in college in Kenya at Laikipia University. I spent two semesters there. There was a student strike and protests, so many issues. After each strike, I would go home for a month. When my sponsor visited me and heard about the strikes, he knew that the situation was not good. He said, “Enough of this.” He knew I wanted to do nursing. If you attend a public university, they choose your field for you. I was studying library and information science, something I never was interested in or thought about doing. He said, “I will see what I can do to help you go to school in the United States.” It was like a miracle. I applied to NIU and was accepted. He helped me with my visa and passport processing. Now, I see him a lot. I spent Christmas with him. Sometimes, we catch up and talk at lunch.
Milton: How would you say JAMS changed your life?
Odhuno: I don’t know how to explain it. Attending JAMS was one of the best parts of my life. Without JAMS, I wouldn’t be here. That’s where the transformation and all the good things happened. Now, here in America, I am studying something I really want to study. I have all this motivation. Everything is a new opportunity for me. After attending JAMS, I know that I can speak out. I have a voice. We can question, give our opinions, be free. Also, there was no caning. We were not hit if we disobeyed. That helped us build emotional support. It was a place to call home. It was so relaxed. All we had to do was study hard because all of our boarding, books and personal items were paid for. We felt so special.
Milton: What are your goals after college?
Odhuno: I want to apply the knowledge I gain here back in my country. With my education, I can transform lives. I want to go back and help my community. I want to help the poor and people in hospitals. Our country needs to improve, and I know that with my education from here, I can make a difference. Also, if there are outbreaks, like storms or earthquakes, they always need nurses. I want to help not just Kenya. I want to help many different countries.