As students in the U.S. head back to school, incoming Juniors and Seniors will be heading into the AP Classes, SAT prep, college applications, after-school clubs, competitive sports. Compounded with non-stop social media, high schoolers are stressed out. Gone are the days of excited back-to-school shopping for three-ring binders and plaid shirts. Instead, it is replaced with an endless string of stress-inducing acronyms--ACT, SAT, OOTD (if you are feeling old decoding the last one, don’t worry, these new acronyms rise and fall as quick as a story on Snapchat).
Our high school students in Kenya don’t have Snapchat. They don’t have smart phones. They don’t the SAT or the ACT. They don’t have the “pre-camp” for soccer or tryouts for the debate team. But they do have their very own stressful acronym—the KCSE (Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education).
Right now, in Kenya, our students are heading into their last term or trimester of the year. For our high school seniors (like Sheila, pictured above), this culminates in one national exam in November—the KCSE. This one exam will determine if they will continue to university. If a student scores well (in the A or B range), they will most likely qualify for a government loan and some amount of choice in the degree they can pursue. B minuses and below, and the options drop off.
On top of the stress of this one final test, is the weight of their families. All our students are orphans. And many of our students are the first ones in their families to go to high school—let alone primary school. But the pressure our students place on themselves is even greater. The challenge for us as an organization, as de-facto parents and mentors, is to help manage that stress.
We tell our students to dream big, that they can do anything. We take them to Nairobi on a mentoring trip. Through student days and home-visits we try and instill self-confidence and a sense of self-worth. But what if they don’t score well? What if they don’t go on to become a doctor? What if they don’t go on to university? Sara and I do not have kids. But we are experiencing all the pains and emotional investment of having teenagers. What if we have filled them with so much confidence and expectations that they will undoubtedly feel defeated?
We so often talk about our success, our next “big news,” and rarely share with you our challenges and fears. But here it is. We fear our students are operating within a system in which the opportunity to go to university is extremely limited. We fear that we have set expectations too high. We fear that we have asked too much of our students and that they are asking too much of themselves.
But what other choices are there, but to dream big? What other choices are there, but to study hard? What other choice is there but to try?
Our dream is for our students to go on to be doctors and engineers and lawyers. But our goal is for our students to be kind, perceptive, hard-working young adults. In our book, success isn’t about the title in front of your name, but rather the adjective behind it. We are most proud of Fanisha not because she became a doctor, but because she is kind and thoughtful and continues to lend a hand all these years later to the younger Ajiri students.
Sara and Duncan and I—three millennials in our late twenties and early thirties—are learning the valuable lessons parenting teenagers. We have learned that just being there can be enough to get our students through their hardest times.
So a big thanks to all of you—our loyal customers and stores, who have been there. You have continued to support us and push us forward. You have given us confidence to expand and a strong foundation of love and community to stand on. And you have given our students the opportunity to learn, the opportunity to succeed, and yes, the opportunity to find a different path. Thank you for being there.
As our students graduate from high school in December, all of us will be there—ready to see not what they become, but ready to see who they become.
Kate, Sara, Regina, and Duncan.
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