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Be the change you want: Mike Ogutu's '08 journey from beneficiary to benefactor

Dr Linda de Flavis, University Advisor, Dover Campus


Mike Ogutu: From beneficiary to benefactor

Have you ever wondered whether UWC National Committee scholarships really benefit the scholars’ communities?

Mike Ogutu (Class of 2008, Kenyan NC Scholar) is living proof of the difference they can make. Now Toronto-based, Mike has travelled far from his roots in rural Kenya. As a boy, walking 14 kilometres each day to an under-resourced government school, and studying at night only when there was paraffin for the lamp, Mike longed for a better education. “I was turned away when I couldn’t pay the $125 annual tuition—sometimes missing weeks of school until my parents could scrape together the money and I was allowed to return.”

Despite the obstacles, Mike’s dreams came true when he set a school record in his national exams and won a scholarship to UWCSEA. The scholarship transformed his life. He went on to study Economics at Middlebury, an elite liberal arts college in Vermont, USA, thanks to the generosity of Shelby Davis (the American philanthropist whose UWC-Davis Scholars program has sponsored more than 4,200 UWC graduates at 94 US universities).

But the story of transformation is not merely personal. Inspired by Shelby Davis’s principle of “Learn, earn and return,” Mike is a philanthropist in his own right, launching the Ungana Scholarship programme.

Mike spoke with Linda de Flavis in the Dover Campus University Advising team about his journey.

How did Ungana begin?

It began informally in my first year at Middlebury, as a way of giving back. People in my community had been so generous to me, chipping in the little they had to help with school fees whenever my parents ran out of money. From UWC onwards, the world opened up and so many people believed in and encouraged me. I went to university on a full scholarship. I’m indebted to all the people who helped me go through my own education.

At Middlebury I worked several campus jobs to sponsor two scholars. In my final year, buoyed up by the stronger performances of the students I’d sponsored, I decided to help many more and let the world know that there is great potential in students from rural areas. They are smart, creative and potential leaders in various fields. They simply lack $125 to be in school.

I believe that the students I sponsor will be great one day. It’s just a matter of giving them the opportunity and they’ll be the leaders our societies need. UWCSEA also developed my innate desire to give back, through service and GCs.

Why were your parents so supportive of your educational goals?

My dad is a Grade 5 drop out. I don’t know my mum’s level of education. She dropped out even earlier and never talks about it. As “failures,” my parents always wanted their children to get the best education in Kenya. They did their very best to make this possible.

What were some of the challenges you faced at your school in Kenya?

We lacked the resources that other schools enjoyed—books, lab equipment, even teachers. Learning was a struggle… Some teachers were really good but others would show up only 10 minutes before the end of class.

Mike Ogutu '08 goes from being a beneficiary to a benefactor.

How did you learn about the UWC scholarships?

My friend heard about the scholarship competition on the radio. I had never heard of UWC or even Singapore back then. I found myself competing with people from high-performing national schools. The competition was very stiff and, on top of that, there were so many stressful challenges involved in travelling to the interview day, that I have never quite stopped wondering how it turned out in my favor!

I believe you also faced some challenges in joining us at UWCSEA?

Yes, many challenges! When I boarded an Emirates Airbus in Nairobi, the first flight of my entire life, I didn’t even know where Singapore was. I’d spent the previous month going back and forth every two days to try and collect my passport from the Immigration Office in Kisumu. The officers wanted a bribe but I don’t do that, so I just kept showing up.

While I was still chasing a passport, school had already started. Finally I went to the Nairobi immigration office and the Kenya UWC chairperson contacted some people there. I got my passport and flew out the next day. By then it was three weeks into the semester.

Weren’t you tempted to give in and bribe the immigration official? After all, you were already 3 weeks’ late for school…

I believe in personal integrity. No matter the situation I am in, I choose to not do bad to get to a better place.

What was it like flying for the first time, alone, to a foreign country? 

I just kept telling myself whenever I get there, I’ll be happy. I reached Changi around 9pm but there was nobody to meet me, due to a communication glitch. Since I had only $10 and a small suitcase, I stayed at the airport until 6am. In the morning I took a taxi to Senior House. The first person I met was a cleaner who lent me my cab fare and called the boarding house director.

Tell us about your career—how does it help you with your NGO work?

I deal with figures, learn about the regulations, investment opportunities and market trends every day at work. With this, I’ve learned to appreciate and account for every penny that donors or I contribute to the NGO. I’ve also learnt how to present our NGO financials to our supporters and Board of Advisors. It gives me ideas about business opportunities to ensure sustainability.

Mike Ogutu '08 goes from being a beneficiary to a benefactor.

How much has your NGO grown?

Working with local schools and volunteers in our Independent Committee who vet applications, we’ve already sponsored several very smart, creative students who possessed leadership qualities but lacked funds. We selected 23 more students for the 2013 academic year, and another 15 in 2014.

Which of your experiences helped you to realise the practical and visionary aspects of your NGO?

I learned management and networking skills while I was student manager for the calling programme at Middlebury. I also drew on the expertise of people like Thea and Anthony Skillicorn, Peter Dalgliesh, Charles McCormick (President Emeritus of Save the Children), and the Middlebury Center of Social Entrepreneurs.

My Initiative for Peace experience at UWCSEA and my professional experience at State Street helped shape my vision in sustainability issues. My team and I are discussing potential business opportunities that would make the project self-sustaining in future.

What are your long-term goals for Ungana?

Our target is to continue sponsoring at least 20 students every year and to add more schools in rural areas. As our students graduate from high school, we are under pressure to help them continue their education. Longer term, I want to expand to cover all the rural areas in Kenya and even reach out to students in other African countries who need help.

What advice would you give a UWCSEA student hoping to start an NGO?

If something in society is not done in the way you think it should be, don’t wait. The sooner you start the better. Be the change you want for the world.

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