When Faith Biegon ’14 and Joan Yego ’16 sit next to each other on a couch, casually close, they are like any other pair of old friends. They back each other up when making comments and round out each other’s statements. They also share an extraordinary background.
Both women participated in a unique program in Kenya that prepares bright students for admission to elite U.S. Colleges. The Kenya Scholar-Athlete Program, or KenSAP, each year selects just a dozen or so students who have scored in the top 1% to 1.5% of Kenya’s national exams. These tests are young people’s gateway to university and are taken by roughly 400,000 high school graduates every year.
In particular, KenSAP targets students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many have grown up in rural areas, in farming families. Others have illiterate parents and are first-generation high school students. The program provides free room and board, and its instructors prep the students to take the TOEFL and SAT exams and fill out college applications. Since its founding, KenSAP has placed 106 students in schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown and the NESCAC schools — schools that can afford to offer generous scholarships. All KenSAP students have received full financial aid.
John Manners, who founded KenSAP in 2004, encourages the Kenyan students to attend liberal arts colleges, although most initially are only familiar with Harvard, Yale or MIT. “Bowdoin in particular has been careful to nurture our kids along, and that is true of several other NESCAC schools. They are watchful, nurturing and kindly. I love the places. I direct the kids to NESCAC schools whenever possible.”
The Stories of Joan Yego and Faith Biegon
Yego was born in Nakuru and grew up in Eldoret, in the Rift Valley, with four siblings. Her mother is a teacher, her father a public administrator. She is part of a small semi-nomadic ethnic group, the Marakwet, who are a sub-set of the larger group of Kalenjin. Many Marakwet do not have much education, Yego said, explaining that KenSAP seeks promising students from minority groups such as hers.
Biegon is the second to youngest in a family of 10 children. Her father is a small-scale farmer and her mother a homemaker. She, like Yego, was born outside Nakuru and is part of the Kalenjin ethnic group.
Both Yego and Biegon excelled in their secondary schools and scored high enough on the national exams to be admitted to the best national universities. Yego’s exam scores qualified her for medical school, Biegon’s for a course in electrical engineering. But the two young women dreamed about different futures.
“I didn’t want to be a doctor,” Yego said. “I wasn’t passionate about it.” Instead, she preferred economics and wanted a career in banking and finance.
When Biegon was a little girl, she said she fantasized about studying abroad. “In my mind, I thought the U.S. was a very developed state, and I really wanted to bring change to my society,” she said, adding that sometimes the best way to help your home is to step outside of it to learn new ways of tackling problems. But then reality seeped in. “I realized it was very hard and you needed a lot of money,” she said. “I almost gave up on that dream.”
While waiting to start university, Bigeon said a friend told her that KenSAP was scouting for students. She quickly sent off her application (which got lost in the mail — fortunately she brought a copy to her interview). The scariest part for her wasn’t the interview, however; it was the 1,500-meter run that all KenSAP applicants must do. “I had never ever run in my life!” Biegon exclaimed.
Yego, too, was intimidated by the 1,500-meter challenge. “I know people from my community are known for running,” she said, “but in that race I came in third to last. It was a painful experience!”
I feel very confident this year. I know I can decide to be anything I want to be; I have the freedom to dictate my own path.”
—Faith Biegon ’14
Besides preparing students for admittance to U.S. colleges, KenSAP trains its students to become runners in the hope that this will give them an advantage in their applications. The program is located in Iten, a town in a region renowned for its world-class endurance athletes. At 7,900 feet above sea level, Iten and environs have produced many elite long-distance runners; many more have trained there.
Despite making its applicants run nearly a mile, KenSAP doesn’t reject those who don’t go fast. A few hours after her run, Yego was told she was accepted. “I was ecstatic,” she said. “I didn’t know if I would ever get the chance to go abroad. I was so humbled and so happy. …My life changed as soon as I got into KenSAP.”
While only about one-fourth of KenSAP students end up running on a college team, all the students train. Biegon and Yego joined early-morning runs before class and sometimes also went for evening runs. While neither ended up becoming the next Joan Benoit, both said they developed an appreciation for the sport. Yego said she still gets up early on some days to go for a run. Biegon, while acknowledging that running “clears her head,” admitted the number of times she has run since KenSAP is “very few.”
“At the end of the day, I want to go home. There’s a lot to do at home, starting with my community.”
—Joan Yego ’16
Despite their lack of interest in running for a college team, neither Yego or Biegon had any problem being admitted to Bowdoin. Both initially became interested in Bowdoin because they wanted to go to a small school in a small town. When Biegon looked the school up, she found The Offer of the College and immediately connected with it, particularly with the lines, “To be at home in all lands and ages,” she said.
Listening to Biegon tell this anecdote, Yego looked surprised. In the years she had known Biegon, Yego said she had never heard this from her friend, and that she too had been stirred to apply to Bowdoin after reading The Offer.
Manners said when he interviews candidates for the 14 spots in his program, he not only looks for achievement, intelligence and fortitude, he also seeks personality traits that would be welcome at a small college trying to build a diverse student body. “They’re spending a lot of money on these kids, hoping that the presence of our kid on campus will enrich the experience of others on campus. What they want is not a kid who will spend his or her time in her room or in a corner in the library, they want a kid who gets out into mix, and our kids do.”
Biegon is an R.A. in West Hall, and is part of the Africa Alliance, Bowdoin Christian Fellowship, Bowdoin Consulting Club and Bowdoin Women in Business. She also tutors young students — many of them part of immigrant or refugee families — at the Portland Housing Authority. Yego is active in the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship and also tutors at the Portland Housing Authority.
Manners said he has seen many of his students, including Biegon, blossom at NESCAC schools. He expects Yego will as well by the time she is a senior. “Faith had been quite reticent, but she is now so poised, so comfortable,” he said, adding that he sees this more in Kenyan girls than boys because the culture leans toward the patriarchal. “Faith was a typical reticent, demure girl, really sweet and charming but not talkative, not particularly outgoing. I knew a NESCAC school would be great for Faith; I was not comfortable sending her to a big Ivy.”
While Yego and Biegon are positive about Bowdoin now, they say adjusting to life here was difficult, particularly to the pedagogical style. Lectures rather than seminars predominate in Kenyan schools. Both women have had to learn to speak up in class, to pursue independent lines of inquiry, to make strong arguments.
“Now I feel very confident this year,” Biegon said. “I know I can decide to be anything I want to be; I have the freedom to dictate my own path.” As a government and economics double major, Biegon is pursuing jobs next year in business consulting. Following that, she said she’d like to get a graduate degree in a field that will prepare her for a career in development in Kenya. “My passions are poverty alleviation, social entrepreneurship, my country and the African continent — and the potential it has,” she said.
Yego, who said she plans to declare an economics and math major, said she would like to work in finance in the U.S. before returning to Kenya. “At the end of the day, I want to go home,” she said. “There’s a lot to do at home, starting with my community.”