DC’s educational trip to Kenya

Durham College journalism students Shanelle Somers (left) and Janis Williams between interviews in Kenya in June. Photo credit: Shanelle Somers

Editor’s note: Durham College was invited to tell the story of its trip to Kenya at the Academics Without Borders conference in Montreal recently. Here is the text of the speech given by DC student Janis Williams.

I am a first-year journalism student who was chosen to go to Kenya as part of Durham College’s (DC) documentary team in June.

We went to tell the story of the Kenya Education for Employment Program (KEFEP).

This is a five-year $20 million initiative funded by the government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada. We wanted to get to the heart of the story, showing the partnerships between Canadian and Kenyan schools and giving students on Kenyan campuses a voice.

We also wanted to tackle the issues faced by students and schools including gender equality, hands on learning and getting the tools they need to better their education.

Our journalism teachers Teresa (Goff), Danielle (Harder) and Brian (Legree) act as mentors to us all. They challenge us to constantly think critically and find a story in everyone and everything.

I am a mature student who returned to college in my mid-30s for one simple reason – I always dreamed of becoming a journalist.

Despite the challenges of going back to school, I was happy with my decision. What surprised me most though, was people’s reaction about my choice of choosing to attend college instead of university, as if university was clearly a better and more logical choice.

This is a stigma many Kenyans face today. Choosing college, or Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutions as they are called in Kenya, is often viewed as a lesser choice on the educational path.

During my stay in Kenya, I witnessed numerous tree planting ceremonies at TVET institutions.

We would visit a school and to commemorate the experience, Kenyans would sing and dance and new trees were planted in the process. A fresh start. A new life. A tree planting its roots with years of life ahead of it. Even thinking back to it now, it makes me smile.

I equate my time in Kenya as the little tree. The week I spent doing what I love in a new place was the beginning of this journey. But much like trees, everyone can enjoy the fruits of them, in time.

When my friends and family learned of my trip to Kenya, they initially thought it was a vacation, but I was there to do an important job. I was there to learn about KEFEP and Colleges and Institutes Canada’s (CICan) initiative.

I took what I learned in my first year of journalism and put my theoretical skills to actual practice. This is true hands on learning. It was exciting and terrifying all at once.

I am a person who takes time to carefully research, plan and process information, but in this role, I needed to think quick on my feet and be ready to interview someone at a moment’s notice.

One of the focuses of KEFEP is to encourage hands on competency-based learning, giving students actual experience beyond just classroom theory. This is exactly what I was fortunate enough to experience my week abroad.

Working with Danielle as a colleague instead of as a teacher was exhilarating.

She is a wonderful teacher, but also a phenomenal journalist. I got to meet Danielle the journalist and learn from her during my week in Kenya. I observed how she could put together questions with little notice and obtain valuable information in the process.

I watched her vision for shots come to life. I witnessed her invest all of her blood, sweat and figurative tears in this project to make it the best she possibly could. There is no doubt, Danielle does things well, but part of the beauty in this experience was she let (second-year journalism student now DC graduate) Shanelle (Somers) and I find our way as journalists, with guidance and full support.

My last interview of our trip was with Elizabeth Vincent from College of the North Atlantic. I had the chance to listen to her group speak before I interviewed her. I started writing my questions furiously, with good background information. I interviewed her and the feeling I had when it was done can’t even be put into words. I felt like I ‘nailed’ it. I felt like all the interviews before this one were decent but really, they prepared me for this one last shot in Kenya. In that very moment, sure I was still a ‘student’ but I was also a ‘journalist’. This is the impact of on the job learning, the ability to achieve your dreams and better yourself, both personally and professionally, in the process.

No textbook can prepare you for this. No class lesson can fully embody the reality of this kind of a moment and no online content can be as impactful.

Durham College students Fraser Cuviello (left), Janis Williams and Jeff Burbidge at work during an interview in Kenya. Photo credit: Jennifer Bedford

Thanks to DC, I got to travel across the globe and see first-hand how students learn in Kenya and the positive changes to come.DC doesn’t only work internationally with Kenya, there are also current projects in Guyana, Peru and Vietnam.

Students and teachers from our college have touched those across the globe. DC also welcomes international visitors to our campus regularly. Internationalization is a two-way street that strengthens all the institutions involved – and more importantly the people from these schools, immensely.

Our team shot 40 hours of footage, conducted 52 interviews and visited nine cities in three weeks. With all of our crew’s hard work, we not only had the experience of a lifetime but also obtained a ton of quality content. We now had a lot of work to do including the important task of putting together our KEFEP documentary.

But how could we make this a full circle learning experience for all the journalism students who did not accompany us on the trip? Well, in October, we took a week off traditional school and learning so we could all engulf ourselves in ‘Kenya week’.

What is ‘Kenya week’? It was a combined effort between first and second-year journalism students at DC. Second-year students mentored and coached the first years and everyone threw themselves into the videos taken on our journey. Each group focused on a different partnership between Kenyan and Canadian schools, while one group did an overview of the entire KEFEP project.

I was in a group focused on the partnership between The Kisii National Polytechnic and Vancouver Island University (VIU). Brandon Wright was a first-year student in my group. I made sure I took the Danielle approach with him, giving him the tools he needed but then let him work.

I scheduled a phone interview with Darrell Harvey from VIU and told Brandon we would do it together. This was his first interview.

We worked on coming up with a logical question line together. He was so nervous when we called and I could relate to the fear, as he was me one year ago. He stayed quiet until near the end of the call and then, it just happened. He found his inner journalist and voice. He asked some poignant questions, some we had prepared and some spontaneous ones based on the answers he was given. Brandon was so happy and I was so proud. I guess mentorship is more similar to teaching than I ever thought.

After the week of collaborative work, each group was left with articles, pictures, videos and infographics. All of this was later put together in ESRI story maps, by the second-year students.

Why does this matter?

Informed citizens inform citizens, even if they are students – they are people who will one day be the future of this world. Students are the seeds of society, the more they grow, like a tree planted at a school in Kenya, the stronger they are and the more they are capable of sharing their strength and knowledge with others.

This conference is called Academics Without Borders – reaching across borders, building a better world. I believe this embodies the kind of work all of the schools involved with KEFEP are doing. It is important and it matters. Borders mark where you are from but humanity should reach far beyond those limits.

The government of Kenya hopes to become an industrialized middle-income country providing a high quality of life by 2030.

Our documentary team of two teachers and four students was in Kenya to make the ‘before’ video, capturing the work KEFEP needs to do in Kenya’s post-secondary schools. DC will be going back in 2020 to see the progress being made and document the ‘after’.

It is my sincerest hope we will discover investment, change, growth, sustainability and adaptability in the education system.

It’s no secret though, change doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time, patience and perseverance.

But in the end, this initiative could be a true ‘full circle, tree in blossom, roots firmly cemented in the ground’ moment for Kenya.

This speech has been edited for length and clarity.