Nyaigoti, a freshman international student from Kenya, left her homeland in August 2018 to study at Missouri State University.
Her journey from Nyamira County in Kenya to Springfield has not been an easy one. But the challenges she has had to overcome has made her realize how strong she is.
Escaping a difficult life
Back home, Nyaigoti, the oldest of four siblings, had to move from one relative’s house to another to avoid a cultural practice known as female genital mutilation. At one of those homes, a relative molested her.
“Thankfully, I ran into a Good Samaritan by the name of Grace Kandagor,” Nyaigoti said. “She took me in and started paying my tuition at Machakos University.”
Then Kandagor offered Nyaigoti a life-changing opportunity – help to pay for her studies in the U.S.
“I grabbed that opportunity,” Nyaigoti said. “We looked at universities to apply to and I chose Missouri State because I wanted to study nursing.”
Leaving her home
When Nyaigoti left for the U.S. last August, it was her first time leaving her country and flying on an airplane. Her journey was not smooth sailing.
During a transit at Denver International Airport, she misunderstood instructions about what to do with her carry-on bag. She ended up leaving it behind. When she arrived at the Branson Airport, her bag was missing. In it was $4,000 – the tuition money Kandagor gave her.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Nyaigoti recalls of that stressful time. She did not even have a cell phone with her. “I did have $30 in my pocket and managed to ask a lady at the airport to request an Uber ride for me to get to Missouri State.”
Help from a fellow Kenyan
Weary and scared, Nyaigoti’s fortunes improved when she arrived at the university’s Plaster Student Union. A staff member connected her with Dr. Kennedy Ongaga, a fellow Kenyan and assistant professor in MSU’s department of counseling, leadership and special education.
“I recall that day when I got the phone call about Valentine. It was a cold, Friday evening,” Ongaga said. “I was imagining what she was going through as I remembered the time I first came to this country many years ago.”
Since Nyaigoti had no money and no housing lined up, Ongaga and his wife agreed to take her into their home. She has been living with them since then. Ongaga also helped her to file a claim for her missing bag. She got it back after two weeks, but the money was gone.
The community comes through
With no way to pay for her tuition, Nyaigoti was in a risky situation. If she could not take classes at Missouri State, she could not stay in the U.S. on her student visa.
She could not ask Kandagor for more money as she was facing her own financial issues. Ongaga shared Nyaigoti’s plight with Patrick Parnell, MSU’s director of international services. He, in turn, shared her story with two women he knew – Ann Kynion and Sharon Cates – through a community organization.
Moved by how Nyaigoti had to escape the cultural abuse of female inferiority in Kenya, they took on the task of raising funds to pay off Nyaigoti’s tuition for fall 2018 and spring 2019.
They said their purpose in doing this was to give Nyaigoti a “hand up, not a hand out – to give her a chance to stay in the U.S. and succeed in getting her schooling.” They believed by doing this, it would enable Nyaigoti to reach her goal of getting her citizenship and helping her family back in Kenya.
“By paying her tuition and keeping her from being deported last spring, we felt this would be the hand up that could make a difference,” Kynion added.
Parnell credits the women for enabling Nyaigoti to remain enrolled at Missouri State.
“Their ability to generate support and compassion in our community is truly amazing,” he said.
Ongaga, who sees himself as Nyaigoti’s godfather, said he could not thank Parnell and community members enough for helping her in her time of need.
“They showed a big heart and a big soul,” Ongaga added.
For Nyaigoti, the generosity shown to her taught her a wider definition of family.
“Family is not just people you’re related to by blood,” she said. “It’s also anyone who’s willing to embrace you, give you a listening ear and offer help.”
A real hope
Nyaigoti is looking forward to the next year of her studies. She has registered for 14 credit hours in the fall semester. While she does not know yet if she will get more financial help, she remains hopeful.
“I know this is a challenge, but there’s always a way out,” Nyaigoti said.
Ongaga believes Nyaigoti’s story is one of moving from naïve hope to critical hope. Back home, she was living with a naïve hope, but it turned into critical hope here in the U.S.
“My challenge to all of us is how are we going to sustain and create spaces where we can enact critical hope?” Ongaga said. “This is important because in one way or another, we’re connected. We’re one person of the same creed of the same humanity. When you succeed, I succeed and we all succeed.”