El Segundo High School

How to change a life, one small act at a time

I remember when I was in the eighth grade, my mom came home from an event, excited, but pensive. She, my brother, and I sat and watched a movie she bought at the event called “One Small Act.”  It is the story of how one German woman in the mid-1970s, living in Sweden named Hilde Back, committed to helping Kenyan children from impoverished families pay for their education. In Kenya, high school is not a fundamental right like it is in America because school fees and required uniforms often keep students out of school in Kenya.

Chris Mburu, from Mitahato Village in Githunguri Kiambu, was the recipient of Ms. Hilde Back’s sponsorship. Through this “one small act,” Mburu went on to not only attend and graduate high school, but also graduate from Harvard Law School. He now serves as a Human Rights Advisor to the United Nations.

The event my mom attended highlighted the efforts of Mburu and other successful Kenyan professionals to start the Hilde Back Education Fund (HBEF) in which to give back to the community. The fund was named in honor of Mburu’s childhood benefactor Ms. Hilde Back.

As I watched the movie, I realized that I was about to enter high school, and that I was (and am) extremely lucky to be able to get an education, and a good one at that. Thus, I decided that I wanted to raise enough money to fund one girl, my age, in Kenya through high school so that she could have access to a good high school education just like myself. This is how I met Philis Wanjiru of Embu, Kenya, as I fundraised money for her education and formed a close pen pal relationship.

Through our letters, I have known Wanjiru since she entered the 9th grade while attending Kangaru Girls Boarding High School, which she studies 11 subjects a year. In Kenya, the high school system is called Form 1-4. In 2016, she joins Form 3. I have learned that Wanjiru lives with her grandmother while she attends school, and sees her mother on holidays.

Wanjiru says that “in Kenya, you attend nursery school at age three, then you have eight years of primary school;” at the end of primary school, all students sit for a standardized exam called Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE). The grades attained in this exam determine which high school the student will attend, if any. Like here in America, high school is four years (Form 1-4).  In Form 4, the last year in high school, students sit for another exam called Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE). The highest achieving students are granted admission into the five national universities (Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenyatta University, Egerton University and Moi University); other students can attend a college. You would graduate at about 22. However, Wanjiru further explains that “post-graduation, most people end up starting their own businesses because job opportunities in Kenya are few.” 

I am really inspired by this because each time Wanjiru writes me, she tells me how she is working to always improve her grades, even in subjects that she finds challenging like Physics. I am able to relate to her, and her diligence motivates me. She enjoys Biology and Math. She has been crowned captain of the term twice, a leadership award. She also gives back to her community and school and is part of the Red Cross donation where they raise personal effects for orphans. She is also a member of the math and science clubs. She loves music, singing, and reading novels.

One thing I have learned about Wanjiru is that like all students across the globe, we find strength through inspiration. Wanjiru is motivated by her uncle, Alfred Maina, who meets her and talks to her and encourages her to make a difference in the family. As a left-handed student, she also feels kinship with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyotta and American President Barak Obama, who are also both left-handed.  Through these three men she sees that she wants to be a leader, and plans to study medicine and psychology at a university.

Often, we high school students in America overlook how fortunate we are to have good schools funded for us from kindergarten through 12th grade. Unfortunately, not all students apply themselves, and do not take advantage of every opportunity they receive. Meanwhile, across the world, there are students who do not have free access to education. I encourage us all to apply ourselves to our studies, and to think how we can touch the lives of other teens, perhaps through “one small act.”

For more information on the Hilde Back Education Fund and/or how to sponsor a student through high school: http://www.hildebackeducationfund.com

Thank you to Philis Wanjiru and the Hilde Back Education Fund for making this interview possible.

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