Fourteen years ago an American journalist named John Manners boarded a flight for Kenya to embark on what he thought was a longshot project: to help a few bright Kenyan students from needy rural families earn full scholarships to the best American universities.
The project was the brainchild of an old friend, Prof. Mike Boit of Kenyatta University, whom John had known since Mike was a student and John was a Peace Corps teacher in the early 1970s. Mike had earned three degrees from American universities, including a Master’s from Stanford, and he had developed a deep respect for the value of America’s top tier universities. John had a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a Master’s from Columbia, which convinced Mike that John was the person to help him realize the project he had long contemplated.
The two had discussed the idea for several years before it came together in 2004. Mike found a low-cost venue that could accommodate half a dozen students and an instructor (John), and he recruited six bright school leavers from the best high schools in his region of Kenya. He then persuaded marathon world record holder Paul Tergat to pay for John’s flight to Kenya. John spent five weeks introducing the students to the American university system, preparing them for the required SAT exams and guiding them through the complex application process. In addition, in the hope of capitalizing on Kenya’s athletic renown, John put the students through twice daily training runs to see if any of the six showed enough promise as runners to interest a university athletics coach. A coach’s support would be a great advantage in the admission process.
After five weeks John returned home and began making contact with university admissions offices. He was confident that the top universities would be eager to admit students from African peasant farming families, since until then nearly all the African students at top US universities had been privileged urban elites. The trick was to convince the admissions offices that his students were genuine and that the information he provided about them was reliable.
In the end, five of the six students were admitted – three to Harvard, one to Brandeis and one to Wellesley, all with full financial aid. They arrived in the US in August, 2005, and immediately found themselves in three of the world’s most demanding and competitive academic institutions. The first semester was harrowing, but all eventually found their footing. Two are now Ph.D.s, one working in medical research in Nairobi and the other with a private equity firm in New York. A third member of that initial group is an executive in a biotechnology company near Boston and a fourth runs his own software company in Nairobi, employing more than a dozen people.
Their initial success made it clear to John and Mike that they had started something. They gave the nonprofit venture a name – the Kenya Scholar- Athlete Project, or KenSAP – and as they began planning to take on a new group of talented students, their efforts came to the attention of Charles Field-Marsham, a Canadian investor who owned several Kenyan companies and was looking for ways to demonstrate the companies’ corporate social responsibility. He offered KenSAP financial support, which enabled the program to take on a larger group of students – on average, about a dozen per year – and to conduct two six-week training sessions for them, pay for their exam fees and provide further support once they began their studies in America.
Since that successful first year, KenSAP has placed 174 additional students at America’s best universities and has expanded its initial regional focus to encompass all of Kenya. Moreover, it has given rise to at least three new programs in Kenya engaged in similar work. Over the past twelve years, KenSAP has placed 100% of its students at top US universities, and some 97% of them either have graduated or are on track for timely graduation. About 40% of the graduates are already back in Kenya working for Kenyan companies, multinationals, NGOs or their own startups. The rest are earning advanced degrees (a dozen more Ph.Ds) or gaining valuable work experience in the US before returning home.
KenSAP’s expanded scope has required the program to engage in active fundraising. AirKenya is proud to number among KenSAP’s corporate supporters, and we encourage anyone intrigued by the program’s success to visit its website, www.kensap.org, which provides ample information about the program as well as a convenient way to contribute.
Every dollar donated to the program generates $42 in financial aid from American universities to Kenyan students. It’s impossible to calculate the ultimate impact of KenSAP or the programs that have sprung up in its wake, but there can be little doubt that this initiative will have a dramatic impact on Kenya’s future leadership.
In 14 years KenSAP has placed 179 Kenyan students at top-tier North American universities, all with full, need-based financial aid.
Ivy League admissions: 75, or 42% of total
Yale 12 (plus one Ph.D.)
Princeton 11 (plus one Ph.D.)
Columbia 3 (plus one Ph.D. and one MD)
Of KenSAP’s 118 university graduates to date,
• 15 have earned or are pursuing Ph.D.s
• 25 more have earned or are pursuing Masters
• 52 have returned to Kenya to work for multinational corporations international NGOs Kenyan companies or to develop their own
As a result, Kenyan undergraduates outnumber those from any other African country at the
top-tier American universities.
Each $1 (US) donated to KenSAP will generate $33 in financial aid to our students. In all, KenSAP has generated more than $46 million in educational aid to Kenya.
To learn more, or to make a donation, please visit www.kensap.org.