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University experiences

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There is no better teacher than university

BY JAMES KAHONGEH

If people were to open up about their experiences in the university, the stories would be a blend of exciting, inspiring, shocking and even spine-chilling accounts.

Besides the intellectual and professional progression that university offers, life in institutions of higher learning triggers social, spiritual and ideological changes too. Sometimes the transformation is voluntary, as students try out new experiences to fit in amongst their peers.

Sometimes not.

This week, recent graduates and students talk about the university experiences that changed the course of their lives forever.

Ann Wairimu, 22, Kenyatta University

Ann Wairimu, 22 of Kenyatta University. PHOTO|

Ann Wairimu, 22 of Kenyatta University. PHOTO| JEFF ANGOTE

“Peer pressure almost ruined my life.”

If Ann were to choose friends now, the lot she hanged out with during her first and second year in university would not make the cut. Wairimu, who is due to graduate later this year, says that some of those friends have ruined their lives.

“While I was brought up to value discipline, I was easily swayed by friends that I met in the university; we would miss lectures, drink alcohol…books were at the bottom of our lists,” she says.

When she joined Kenyatta University in 2013, Wairimu was living with her parents, whose home was near the institution. After some time, she asked to move out to live alone. Her parents reluctantly granted her wish and rented a house for her.

“I wanted freedom. My girlfriends, who were living on their own seemed to have so much fun. They would go out whenever they wanted, party and even stay with their boyfriends. I wanted to have fun too, but I thought I could not while living at home.”

“With no one to keep an eye on me, I started to dress indecently, staying out until late and lying to my parents. By our second year at university, some of my friends got pregnant, while others dropped out of school due to alcoholism and wild partying,” she says.

Watching her friends walk down this path of self-destruction was the wake-up call that Wairimu needed. By then, her grades had hit rock bottom. She quickly took stock of her life and decided to change. The first step that she took was to move back home.

“It has been two years now since I decided to turn my life around, I have matured emotionally and socially and respect myself. Today, I go out less often, and whenever I do, it has to be with people I trust, mostly my sisters, and even then, we do not stay out late. My experience taught me that freedom without responsibility is dangerous.”

Wairimu’s current friends are nothing like she had during her initial years in university.

“I hang out with forward-thinking and ambitious people who have a sense of direction. Together we attend career fairs, public lectures and business workshops. We also actively participate in a number of networking groups to grow ourselves professionally. We have also formed an investment group,” Wairimu says.

Her grades have also improved, and she is more assertive.

“My studies come first now. I am also more confident, and cut off people who have nothing meaningful to offer without remorse. I also have a job, and I am also studying accounting. These achievements would not have been possible had I not woken up to the reality that I was destroying my life.

Stephen Kariuki, 24, University of Nairobi

Stephen Kariuki during an interview at Nation

Stephen Kariuki during an interview at Nation Centre in Nairobi on October 3, 2017. PHOTO| EVANS HABIL

“Choose your friends carefully because they will either be the inspiration you need, or your downfall.”

For Stephen Kariuki, who is in his final year of study, hanging out with “well-connected and financially well-off friends has worked well for him but has also, to some extent, been his undoing.

“When I joined the university, I met peers from all walks of life, some very well-connected, some smarter than I, and others with lots of money. My background is modest, so it was quite a challenge for me to fit in these groups,” he says.

During his first and second year, Kariuki partied a lot, a factor that affected his academic performance.

“At the time, I felt I had lots of time on my hands. I hardly ever read, and ended up scoring very poor grades; the bulk of academic work has significantly increased in these final two years, making it difficult to fully compensate for the poor grades I scored at the beginning – this I will always regret,” he says.

But it is the friendships he made that have most impacted his life.

“I learnt that associating with friends whose lifestyle you cannot keep up with puts you at a disadvantage; you feel out of place – by the time I was in my second year in university, pressure to conform had worn me out, so much so, that I deferred my studies. This turned out to be my worst decision and a turning point in my life.”

He adds,

“I had thought that a break would enable me to focus on my studies upon my return. What I ended up with was too much time in my hands that I did not know what to do with. From social and academic-related stress, I was now struggling with boredom at home, yet I could not go back to school because I had applied for a two-semester break.”

This deferment cost him an academic year, as it is, his former classmates have since graduated.

“This taught me a worthy lesson; to appreciate who I am even as I strive to improve my life.”

His acquaintance with-connected colleagues was not all in vain though because it landed him product promotion opportunities with brands such as Gillette and Huawei, which have been profitable.

“These gigs enable me to pay my school fees and cater for other needs. Hanging out with friends that are financially better off than me has also challenged me to be more proactive and aggressive in my quest for the better things that life has to offer.”

James Ndirangu, 23, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT)

23 year old James Ndirangu, a Jomo Kenyatta

23-year-old James Ndirangu, a Jomo Kenyatta University graduate. PHOTO| KANYIRI WAHITO

“I got suspended in my first year.”

Like most first year students, Ndirangu was hit by culture shock when he was admitted to JKUAT in 2014 to study industrial chemistry. Soon, he lost his moral compass, and engaged in behaviour that would lead to his suspension from university.

“I am the last-born in a very close-knit family where good behaviour was demanded of me. Suddenly, I was in the university all by myself with lots of new friends, plenty of alcohol and girlfriends. I found it hard to resist this newfound freedom and what it brought with it,”

Ndirangu narrates.

Within his first year at university, he turned to heavy drinking, but smoking bhang was his worst decision.

“I was high all the time. This habit affected me socially; I associated less with others. It also ruined my intellectual capacity and I lost confidence in my ability to handle schoolwork without smoking weed or cheating in exams. During the end of first semester exams in first year, I was caught with notes in the exam room and was suspended for an entire academic year.”

Upon return to school in 2015 after what he describes as the lowest moment of his time at university, Ndirangu gathered his broken pieces, determined to redeem himself.

“I had spent the entire suspension period soul-searching. When I returned to school, I joined “The Journey”, a Christian-based community in our university that guides students through leadership training, career workshops and team-building initiatives. Members would also share their life experiences and help each other to overcome whatever challenges they were undergoing.”

Ndirangu became an integral part of the organisation, and was soon placed in charge of the organisation’s band.

“The opportunity to lead was an esteem-booster for me. It was amazing to have people believe in my capacity to lead. This also enabled me to heal faster. Before this, I kept a very exclusive circle of friends, and would hardly interact with others outside this circle. Through this initiative however, I was exposed to more people with who I could freely engage. I had been transformed socially,” he recounts.

Ndirangu knows that he is lucky that his worst mistake led to his redemption, adding that his involvement with the community’s activities awakened his conscious about his leadership potential.

“This responsibility also sharpened my time management skills, a factor that I had always struggled with,” he says, adding that his life is more organised now. He graduates later this year.

Kelvin Ng’ang’a, 22, Kenyatta University

Kelvin Ng'ang'a Njoki, a blogger and student at

Kelvin Ng’ang’a Njoki, a blogger and student at Kenyatta University. PHOTO| EVANS HABIL

“I have learnt how to be self-sufficient.”

Ng’ang’a, currently in his final year of study, studying forensics, attended a local day school in Murang’a County where his exposure was limited. His perspective of life, he says, was narrow, and he was suspicious of people’s motives.

“The university opened me up to divergent views, thanks to interacting with many from different socioeconomic and cultural, political and ideological backgrounds. At first, it was difficult to adjust, but eventually, I learnt to coexist with my new friends,” Ng’ang’a says, and adds,

“With time, I began to feel embarrassed asking for money from my parents to support myself while in school, and decided to look for ways to generate an income to be able to take care of my personal needs. In my second year, a friend introduced me to blogging and product promotion on social media, which I do to date.”

Through constant struggle, Ng’ang’a learnt the attribute of self-reliance.

“For two years now, I have not asked my parents for financial assistance – this feeling of independence fulfils me.”

But this financial independence has come at a cost. He is paid to drive political agenda on social media, which often earns him attacks from those who do not agree with the message.

“In a politically polarised country such as Kenya, to do what I do, one has to develop a tough skin to survive on social media, especially on Twitter. Over time, I have had to accommodate all views that my posts attract because I depended on my social media platforms to make a living. I no longer take political and ideological views expressed on social media personally,” says Ng’ang’a, who has 116,000 followers on Twitter.

“My experience has taught me that academic excellence by itself is not sufficient; one must also seek to do well in the economic, spiritual and social facets of life. I am happier about my other activities in school more than I am about the academic part of it,” he says.

Brenda Mbalanya, 22, graduate, 
Kenyatta University

Forensics Expert Brenda Mbalanya. PHOTO|

Forensics Expert Brenda Mbalanya. PHOTO| KANYIRI WAHITO

“A toxic relationship taught me that having a boyfriend is not the most important thing life.”

A nasty dating experience prompted Brenda to change her view of romantic relationships. Today, she is more vigilant, and thoroughly scrutinises those she lets into her life beforehand.

“In high school, I was reserved and conservative and concentrated on my books. When I got to college, I found that I had to balance between the academic workload, demands of social life and meeting my parents’ expectations of me, which I found challenging,” Brenda recounts.

“As for relationships, I wanted to date someone who I would end up marrying – my friends, however, either had more than one boyfriend or had a relationship to fall back on when one failed to work.”

In her third year, and under pressure to be in a relationship, Brenda decided to give dating a shot. Her choice turned out to be ill-informed.

“The moment I opened up myself, I found myself in a very hazy relationship. I was dating someone who was very deceptive and cunning. He was not there for me emotionally, and borrowed money from me all the time with an unfulfilled promise to pay me back. He was more of a burden than a soulmate,” she surmises.

By the time Brenda realised that the relationship was not worth her while, she had been wounded emotionally and swindled of all the money she had. She later learnt that her former boyfriend was a serial con, a realisation that devastated her emotionally.
Brenda withdrew socially and sought solace in her books.

“I tried to understand how and why I had got myself into that mess. I concluded that I could not look after someone else if I could not look after myself properly, that relationships can wait, that you don’t have to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend because everyone else around you does.”

She adds,

“My priorities have since shifted. A romantic relationship is currently not top on my list. My priority right now is to pursue my master’s degree in forensics and to expand my bakery business,”

University also taught Brenda the value of compassion. Before, she viewed street children as young criminals. One day, a friend, who runs Out of Streets Foundation, a feeding and clothing programme for street children, invited her to one of their activities.

“I did not want to attend, but she insisted. Eventually, I gave in and attended, though half-heartedly. I listened to heart-wrenching stories of how some of the children had ended up in the streets, the harassment and assault they were exposed to. I understood just how privileged I was, and have since learnt to be thankful for what I have,” she says.

Brenda joined the organisation, where she is currently the organisation’s communication director. Since graduating in 2016, she has been juggling between running her business and being at the heart of charitable activities targeting street families in Nairobi.

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