Pauline Wanja explains why she has made a career out of connecting young Kenyans with relatable role models. Pauline is Programme and Advocacy Manager for Future First Kenya.
How did you get involved in Future First?
I graduated from university with a degree in law and accounting, but I decided that I wanted to work in youth engagement. In 2012 I was running an initiative called ‘Living in a Shanty Town’. It was a platform I had set up to help kids from my community from disadvantaged backgrounds. We were trying to increase social mobility in the area by creating meaningful social networks to help local kids to achieve their dreams. I had been invited to speak at a forum in Canada about our work and I heard about the Future First model. I saw that Future First was trying to achieve the exact same thing that I was, but on a larger scale, with a defined model, so I applied for a job!
What is it about role models that is so important?
For me, having grown up in a slum and having interacted with hundreds of kids who did too, there’s a real lack of social support. And also you don’t get to – or it’s rare – to get to meet people who have gone out and done amazing things. It was something missing from my life growing up. You grow up in that neighbourhood and you get stuck in it. So role models, especially if they’re from your area or from your school, give you someone relatable to look up to.
You grow up in that neighbourhood and you get stuck in it. So role models, especially if they’re from your area or from your school, give you someone relatable to look up to.
How did you approach setting up the Future First alumni model in Kenya?
When I joined the Future First team in 2012, they had already done a poll with IPSOS looking into the feasibility of the model of alumni engagement in Kenya. The poll found that 78% of adults across the country would be willing to give back to their old school if asked by Future First, but less than 1% had done so. So that was the information we had when we set out. Then we started by selecting a cross section of schools in Nairobi, to see how the program would play out in different areas and also to capture the needs of students at different levels. Once we had our schools, we conducted a baseline survey to find out what the expectation of the students was and what the teachers wanted to get out of alumni support.
What have your reflections been on Future First in its first two years in Nairobi?
It’s been so exciting to see the role that the alumni engagement and education can play in different things, like connecting kids with model citizens for them to look up to, challenging perceptions about women in the world of work or ideas about careers in the arts and humanities.
It’s been exciting also to see how the model plays out in different schools and how alumni have a real value add no matter what the need or background of students. In schools in neighbourhoods with real challenges and high poverty rates, the kids are convinced that no one from there really makes it. So they’re surprised when you bring someone in who’s doing something great with their lives. And you can see the excitement on their faces. While working with a school where the kids are more confident about completing school and succeeding, you see that alumni can help to change perceptions about different career paths, like the real possibility of pursuing a career in humanities or the arts as well as the traditional professions. The alumni are in a position to have a really honest conversation with them about what they can do and what the school can do differently.
Do any schools or alumni stand out to you?
Dandora School is one of the 15 schools in Nairobi that we work with. It’s mostly known because it’s at the heart of the Dandora dumpsite, one of the biggest in the world. The area has high poverty and many kids struggle with the school fees. The crime rate is very high. In Dandora, people work in the dumpsite for the most part, collecting and separating scraps. The kids who don’t go onto college that’s what they mostly end up doing. Or running informal businesses, like small kiosks. It’s very tough. There’s no place tougher than Dandora.
Running events there, bringing alumni back in to talk to the students, you see how much of an impact it has on their perceptions of their futures. I think when you’re struggling to see that there’s more to life than the daily struggle, finding that one person who gives you some optimism, it changes things. You feel like they did it, so I can.
There’s a former student of Dandora called Duncan. When we met, he was juggling a business and a family with trying to go back to the school to set something up to support students. Since then, he’s come to all of our events at the school. He told me he does it because it’s a really tough neighbourhood and it’s good for the kids to have alumni as big brother or big sister figures, somebody to hold their hand when they need it and inspire them.
In general there’s a lot of excitement from all the schools and alumni I reach out to. I’m always surprised with the response I get when I am calling a stranger – an alumni of a school we work with – and asking them to give their time. Most of the time the response has been positive and excited to give back.
What do you hope to see happen with alumni engagement in Kenya?
It will be exciting to see Future First working in more schools in Kenya, but I think even more exciting than that would be to see a real culture change in the country around alumni engagement. We’re already starting to see more schools working with their former students as relatable role models for children still at school. I’m excited to be a part of this wider inclusion of alumni as part of the education system.