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July 14, 2017

Postcard from Kenya: Sarah Mwangi’s journey to UTEP

Collin Leibold is considered one of the most polite boys to ever hail from the Mid-Atlantic Region of the United States of America. In addition to his manners, and perhaps because of them, Collin is also a well-credentialed NCAA athlete (2015 NCAA qualifier in the 5,000-meter while running for Georgetown) and is now juggling his studies at Stanford with a post-collegiate running career.We should all strive to be more like Collin. He dropped into the CITIUS MAG inbox with a short story that he wants to share with the rest of the running community of a recent trip to Kenya.


Sarah Mwangi is similar to hundreds of other incoming college runners. She’s excited, nervous and trying to get fit. But there’s one major exception: Sarah has never been to the United States. Next month, she’ll fly from Nairobi to El Paso to start her four years at UTEP. Her flight will be the last and easiest leg of her journey.

The journey started last December, on a windy day in a grass field near Eldoret, when Sarah stepped up to a starting line. She took a deep breath, crossed herself and waited for the command. “Ready and… go!” She took off down the red dirt straightaway, girding herself for five minutes of pain. Five minutes. That was the time she had been told she would need to run in the 1,500 meters here at 8,000 feet of elevation in order to earn a scholarship to an American university. At the line, Sarah wasn’t nervous.

She told me, “I had confidence in myself, and I had decided to do my best.”

Many high school runners in Kenya dream of attending U.S. schools that offer high-level athletic resources and job opportunities. Edward Kemboi, a seven-time All American at Iowa State, told me about his path to a U.S. university. Kemboi was a 400-meter runner in high school. After winning the Kenyan high school 400m championships, Kemboi was approached by Barnabas Korir, chairman of Athletics Kenya and a former Iowa State Cyclone. Korir saw promise in Kemboi, so he connected him with Coach Corey Ihmels at Iowa State. Kemboi was 17 years old at the time, so he stayed home for an extra year while applying for a visa. After jumping bureaucratic hurdles for many months, he was awarded a visa. He started at Iowa State the following fall.

Sarah had no existing connection with an American coach. She had to earn it through the 1,500 meter time trial. It was only a coincidence that she was at the time trial at all. During winter break, Sarah and a few classmates at Mother of Mercy School, based in a rural village called Lare, travelled three hours north to Iten for a training camp. There, they trained with other high school runners, running two to three times per day, sometimes up to two hours at one time. Sarah’s classmates stayed for two weeks, but they all wanted to go back home for Christmas; Sarah decided to stay. She explained to me that she wasn’t ready to go home yet: “I could have wasted a lot of time at home and my performance could [have] gone down.”

Sarah’s decision meant she would return to Mother of Mercy one week later. It couldn’t have been an easy decision; after all, Mother of Mercy, a boarding school, provides housing, food, healthcare and education with cheap tuition as well as generous financial aid. The school was started by Sr. Rose Kuria, a nun at Georgetown Visitation School in Washington, DC. Sr. Rose grew up in Lare, and moved to the U.S. in her twenties to live in the convent at Visitation. She is now a citizen of the United States, living a comfortable life in D.C. It wasn’t always that way. In Lare, food is scarce and malaria rates are high. As a nun, she has tried to give back by founding Mother of Mercy. The school now houses 300 students, provides care for many more community membersand grows enough crops to be nearly self-sustaining.

Sr. Rose single-handedly took the school from an idea to a self-sustaining institution. When you meet her, you understand how she was able to do so. I first met her during my senior year at Georgetown University. I was preparing for the NCAA championships in the 5000 meters while, at the same time, getting the pieces in place to visit Mother of Mercy school later in the summer.

After a meeting with Sr. Rose, she asked me about my upcoming race.

“Will you win, Collin?” she asked.

I chuckled, realized she was serious, and then started to explain to her that Edward Cheserek was in the race, that he was practically unbeatable, and that I’d be quite pleased with a mid-pack finish.

She listened for a moment, paused, and then said, simply, “If you believe it in your heart, you will win.” (I did not win. But at in that moment, looking at Sr. Rose’s determined face, I believed.)

Sr. Rose is generous, but she is also tough. She encourages teachers to work their students hard. I saw firsthand how hard Sarah and her classmates worked when I visited Mother of Mercy in June of 2015. A typical day in the life of Sarah Mwangi at Mother of Mercy went like this:

4am-wake up, do chores

6am-run (40 minutes)

8am-breakfast

8:30am to noon-morning class

noon-lunch

1pm to 4-afternoon class

4pm-evening run (40 minutes)

6pm-dinner

7 to 9pm-homework

9pm-lights out

When I visited Mother of Mercy, I could tell that Sarah was driven. She spoke passionately about her goals: a scholarship to an American university, a running career and a career in medicine.

Sarah’s drive was on full display during the time trial that December morning in Iten. She passed through two laps on pace, her shoulders tightening, legs growing heavy. She kept grinding, knowing she’d have to give it everything in the final lap. At stake was more than a scholarship; it was two wildly different futures.

If Sarah were to stay in Kenya, she could still attend university and achieve her goal of becoming a doctor. University fees are relatively low in Kenya, so she and her family could afford it. However, her running career would probably be over. Although Kenya is known for its distance-running prowess, the country doesn’t have a system of inter-collegiate athletes like the US. Students are expected to study; in fact, during Sarah’s senior year of high school, she was not allowed to train because her qualifying exams were coming up. If Sarah were to stay in Kenya, she could achieve most of her goals, but she’d be faced with giving up running eventually. She’d also be faced with a much lower earning potential. Doctors in the United States earn, on average, $200K per year; last year, Kenyan doctors went on strike to demand a fair salary. Even if Sarah returns to Kenya after graduating, she’ll benefit from the value of a degree from a U.S. institution–a value that we too often take for granted.

On the backstretch, Sarah opened up her stride, pouring herself into the task. She rounded the bend at 200-meters-to-go, not caring now about the lack of oxygen or the lactic acid pouring into her legs. She drove her body to the finish line, finishing, completely exhausted in four minutes and 55 seconds.

The performance was good enough to earn her a referral to Coach Paul Ereng of UTEP, who has a history of coaching Kenyan athletes. One of his athletes, Emmanuel Korir, won the indoor and outdoor 800m NCAA championships this year. Coach Ereng himself is no slouch, having won Olympic gold in the 800m at the Seoul games in 1988, the summer after his freshman year at UVA. Coach Ereng wanted Sarah to come to UTEP, and Sarah was on board.

Up to this point, Sarah’s recruitment process was similar to many American runners. Most girls train hard and sacrifice for their sport. Their dedication results in an impressive performance, which draws the attention of college coaches. Then, the process is relatively simple and much like our own. The runner takes the SAT, sends in her application to the school of her choice, and the coaches sometimes help out with acceptance. She then posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and several other social media platforms about her choice.

For Sarah, the time trial was only the start of a long and difficult process. Before enrolling in a US college, international students require a US student visa. Some students obtain visas more easily than others. My current training partner was easily able to get one. He’s a Brit who graduated with a Maths degree from Cambridge and had access to the internet and transportation to the US embassy. Sarah, coming from a rural village near Nakuru, Kenya, had less power. She needed someone like Paul Ereng to help her through the process.

Fortunately, Coach Ereng is practiced at helping students over bureaucratic hurdles. He worked with Sarah to get her SAT, TOEFL, National ID transcripts, and passport. After a few difficult weeks, Sarah collected all of the required documents, except the visa. On the strength of her grades, SAT score, and running ability, she was accepted to UTEP, where she’ll start school in the fall, if she can get a visa in time. Coach Ereng is currently in Kenya working with the US embassy to get visas for Sarah and some other incoming freshmen. Without him, these girls would not get a degree from an American college.

In the NCAA, Sarah may face discrimination, spoken aloud or whispered quietly. In the American collegiate system, there is certainly an undercurrent of discomfort with teams that win with “foreigners.” This feeling isn’t restricted to athletes from African nations, although it does seem more pronounced with Kenyans. The conversation around foreign athletes has a moralistic tinge to it (i.e. some believe Colorado does it the “right way” by recruiting only Americans). I suggest a more helpful way of framing the argument. American universities, especially public universities, have a primary mission: educate the people who pay into the system. However, our schools have a secondary mission: make the world a better place. Part of making the world a better place involves educating talented non-citizens. The relevant question is not whether New Mexico is cheating by recruiting Brits; rather, we should ask what requirements an individual non-citizen must meet in order to attend an American school. I tend to think that a non-citizen should meet higher requirements than a citizen, but only barely, and that we should seek out motivated, talented citizens of foreign countries (e.g. the Edward Chesereks of the world). My experiences with hard-working foreign athletes informs my opinion. Others, with different past experiences, will disagree, preferring to admit only the cream of the crop, academically and athletically, so as not to take away opportunity for Americans. We’ll disagree, but we’ll at least be able to debate.

Sarah has met the requirements set by current visa policy. She worked hard in school and ran fast enough to earn a spot on the UTEP roster. She hopes to travel to Texas in August to start school in the fall. At UTEP, Sarah will join a crew of Kenyan women, adjusting to life in the NCAA. Sarah feels excited about going to Texas. Although she will miss her family, she hopes to be an inspiration to them to stay in school and work hard. She is fortunate to have a supporter in Sr. Rose.

Her goals: “I want to do my best. I want to shine.”

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