President Morris reflects on her summer 2022 visit to St. Lawrence University's Kenya Program and the importance of off-campus study.
In ninth grade, my world changed when I sat next to an exchange student named Laurence Drabbé from Belgium in my English class. Laurence and I became great friends and are still in contact nearly 40 years later. Because of this experience, I decided to go abroad for a year with AFS Intercultural Programs instead of heading to college after high school. AFS is a high school, homestay-based exchange program to foster intercultural understanding and peace. I spent a year in a small town in southern Austria, close to the border of what was then Yugoslavia. That experience was the foundation for my steadfast belief in the transformational power of studying abroad.
In the years since, I have taught students in the study abroad context, covered principles of cross-cultural psychology in courses I taught, and worked to grow study abroad opportunities for college students. When exploring St. Lawrence as a candidate for the presidency, I was pleased to find that the University has a strong study abroad program and an exceptional cohort of international students. I was particularly intrigued by our deep partnerships in Kenya. Since joining the Laurentian community last summer, it was important to me to learn more about our relationship with Kenya and our Kenya Program, just as I made sure to visit other signature off-campus programs, including the Liberal Arts in New York City semester and the Adirondack Semester. In March, my husband Brian and I spent two weeks in Kenya, along with Florence Hines, vice president for Enrollment Management and dean of Admissions and Financial Aid; Tom Pynchon, vice president for University Advancement; and Carol Smith Pynchon, Tom’s wife.
During our time in Kenya, we learned about our signature Kenya Program and discovered more about our significant institutional investments in our employees and compound there. We connected with many Laurentians and partners and celebrated the 50th anniversary of our first student trip to Kenya—a January Term visit in 1972.
Students studying for the semester in Kenya live and learn on our beautiful 5-acre compound in Karen, Nairobi, supported by 17 full-time and part-time employees of St. Lawrence. In addition to residential, dining, and classroom facilities, students have access to open recreational spaces—a fire pit, volleyball, soccer, and other outdoor activities. A new addition to the compound—space for isolation in the event of illness—provides more flexibility for hosting students, faculty, and other visitors post-pandemic. Faculty include two of our Kenya Program directors and a host of adjuncts who teach our students in addition to their notable careers in Nairobi. I was impressed with our team in Kenya and how they embody the Laurentian spirit even though they are more than 7,000 miles away from Canton, New York.
In addition to their time on the compound, students live with host families in a rural homestay environment. When we visited one community of homestay families in Nyeri, a warm welcome, dancing, singing, and a presentation about life in that community greeted us. We heard St. Lawrence students are respectful, eager to learn and help, very conscious of time and planning, and afraid of bugs! One of the community elders shared that it’s very good for their children and grandchildren to be around St. Lawrence students. I was inspired to learn that in this community, the host families continue their connection even when not hosting. They created the St. Lawrence University Social Welfare Club, which meets monthly to provide mutual social and financial support to members who need it.
Back in Nairobi, we hosted a reception for St. Lawrence alumni who live in Kenya, their families, host families, independent study partners, and other friends and collaborators with St. Lawrence. The Honorable Francis Chachu Ganya ’96, a member of the Kenyan parliament, gave remarks. I was excited to announce an anonymous gift of $500,000 to create the Ken Okoth ’01 Black American Music Project. Ken Okoth had a tremendous and long-lasting impact on our community as a graduate and elected member of the Kenyan parliament. He is widely recognized as a visionary leader of his Nairobi community of Kibera and passed away in July 2019 after a courageous battle with cancer. His wife Monica and brother Jeff were in attendance for the announcement.
Spending any semester abroad, but especially as part of our Kenya Semester, is a life-changing experience for our students, and I am so pleased to have had the chance to visit the program. The connections between St. Lawrence and Kenya are deep and meaningful, and I hope to find ways to strengthen them in the years ahead.