By Steven Withrow
Many things surprised Connor J. Cobb in his first months working with high school graduates in Kenya—an East African country of nearly 50 million people—and one thing he did not expect to find was that some Kenyan runners he met in his travels would already know of his hometown of Falmouth and the Falmouth Road Race.
The 24-year-old member of the Falmouth Track Club, who graduated from Falmouth High School in 2013 and graduated last May from Wesleyan University with a degree in European history, has been working for the Kenya Scholar-Athlete Project, or KenSAP, since September.
He recently returned home for a month of college admissions visits for the nonprofit, including at his alma mater, before returning to Kenya.
He is the son of Joseph P. Cobb and Jayne D. Farley of Falmouth.
KenSAP helps gifted, needy Kenyan high school graduates gain admission to highly selective universities in the United States and Canada. Each year the program chooses a dozen high-achieving students, introduces them to the American university system and its application process, and prepares them for the American SAT exams.
Since its founding in 2004, KenSAP has helped place 179 students at US and Canadian colleges, all with full, need-based financial aid. All but six of those students have graduated, according to KenSAP’s website.
“At Wesleyan, I was a member of the cross-country and track team and a friend and teammate of mine, Noah Langat, was a Kenyan student who had been in a similar program to KenSAP, one that helps just a specific part of the country. He put me in touch with the program director at KenSAP. Through my friend, I’d also been working remotely with students in Kenya, editing their college admission essays and giving them advice about applying to schools in the US. All they have are YouTube videos and pictures,” Mr. Cobb said Monday, April 8.
Last August, a month before flying to Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, Mr. Cobb traveled to Ghana in West Africa to teach students there along with another friend from Wesleyan.
“I had read a lot about Kenya, and I’d taken a bunch of African history courses, so I knew about the political situation in Kenya and about the political violence there in the most recent election, but I really didn’t know what it would be like working at a school there or what Nairobi would be like,” he said.
For 15 weeks during the fall Mr. Cobb taught 18 students, at a school an hour north of Nairobi, as they prepared to take the SAT.
“They’re all top students in the country, from disadvantaged backgrounds. There’s a national exam that about 600,000 Kenyan students take, and we draw from the top half of 1 percent for our program,” he said.
The program runs five days a week from 8 AM to 5 PM, with an activity on Saturday. This year’s group was divided equally between young men and women.
“They’ll work 100 hours a week, and if we didn’t make them do an activity, they’d study instead. English is the language of instruction, especially at the top public schools. Most students speak English, Swahili and at least one tribal language,” Mr. Cobb said. “For most students, it would be impossible for them to afford college in Kenya, let alone in the US. Even getting them to the US would be next to impossible for most families. Many students grew up without electricity and running water.”
KenSAP students mainly apply to Ivy League universities and small liberal arts schools such as Middlebury College or Amherst College that can afford to offer students full financial aid. Some students are also athletes, but this is not necessary, and academic merit is much more important, Mr. Cobb said.
“At first I wasn’t able to travel much, so I saw the country through my students’ eyes, which is maybe a better introduction than simply going on safari or taking a bus around. There are 42 tribes in Kenya, and in many ways it’s really a diverse and divided country. This year most students came from eight to 10 different tribes. When the students would talk about politics, I sensed how passionate they were about politics and how attached they were to where they come from,” he said.
The students bonded, in part, over their love of English Premier League soccer, he said.
While the rigid Kenyan curriculum prepares students well in mathematics, they need additional help with the SAT verbal section, Mr. Cobb said.
“Each morning we’d go through new words, and I’d give them different contexts in which they’d be used. Kenya was colonized by the British, so they use a lot of words the way the British do, so it’s confusing to see the words on the SAT the way Americans use them. We also teach basic information about American history,” he said.
In addition to SAT preparation, KenSAP teachers help students improve their writing skills for college-level research papers and also teach practical life skills students will need in college through two orientations: one in Kenya and one when they first arrive in the US.
“After the teaching year ends and I’m done helping students prepare for admissions interviews and their applications, I help them through the visa process and with their paperwork, all this logistical stuff, because getting them to the US is not easy,” Mr. Cobb said. “Some parents aren’t eager to have their kids leave the country, thinking that a student who scores high on the national exam should study medicine in Kenya. That’s a sure bet to status and more wealth for them and their family, whereas they don’t know as much about college in the United States.”
Hundreds of applications for the KenSAP program arrive each June, and Mr. Cobb will be among those making the selections this year.
“I’m not looking forward to the agonizing process of selecting 18 to 20 students for the program,” he said. “Kenyan high school ends in November of senior year, and graduates study through the summer for the SAT, which they take in the fall, and then they have 12 more months before they go to college. Unlike American high school students who apply in fall of senior year, they’re a year behind, but in some ways they’re a year more mature.”
KenSAP is hoping to make that year more like a “gap year” in the US.
“We’re doing a more intensive college prep program and students will have internships in Nairobi, which will be especially useful for the ones who grew up in a rural area. Nairobi is not unlike any city in America. It’s really developed and international, although the wealth disparity between Nairobi and the rest of the country is huge,” he said.
Mr. Cobb will return to Falmouth in August with a group of students, in time for the Falmouth Road Race.
“A few might be running in the race, and, if not, they’ll likely volunteer during the race,” he said. “Since I’ve visited a few of the students’ homes near Nairobi, I’m excited to invite them to my home in Falmouth.”
To illustrate the importance of KenSAP, Mr. Cobb said one student, the son of Rwandan refugees, is now attending Brandeis University in Waltham.
“He was the best student in his county but because he has no Kenyan citizenship, he would never have been able to go to a Kenyan university. A private individual funded him to go to high school, but he couldn’t have gotten government funds. He’s lived as a kind of stateless person, and the UNHCR [the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] has helped with his passport and student visa. It’s an incredible opportunity for him. He and his parents have been UN asylum-seekers eking out a living on the margins of Kenyan society for the past 20 years,” he said.
Mr. Cobb said he is often asked, by Americans and Kenyans, whether KenSAP students will return to Kenya after they receive their degrees. For the most part, the answer is yes.
“When I went to Kenya and spoke to the students, it became clear to me that they’re not eager to stay in America. Everything they’ve ever known is in Kenya. And it helps that Nairobi is a burgeoning tech scene. A lot of our students have degrees in computer science, math or economics, really marketable fields, so they can go back to Kenya and get well-paying jobs right out of college. For others it makes more sense to make a lot of money in the US and send a lot of it home, to communities that have next to nothing. Only a handful have become American citizens, and that’s because they married Americans. Part of what the organization is doing is enriching Kenya,” he said.
Mr. Cobb said he will be working for KenSAP for at least two more years.
“I love this job. It’s really, really hard, but in a way that’s endlessly fun. I’ve had a great time getting to know the students. I’m excited to see what will happen to them—people who are so intelligent and talented,” he said.