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The first group of St. Lawrence students to travel to Kenya, in January of 1972. Furthest to right: Peter French; Anne Chene os next to him. Paul Gilbert is sixth from the right. Photo: St. Lawrence University, Special Collections and Vance University Archives
The first group of St. Lawrence students to travel to Kenya, in January of 1972. Furthest to right: Peter French; Anne Chene os next to him. Paul Gilbert is sixth from the right. Photo: St. Lawrence University, Special Collections and Vance University Archives

How a North Country college + an African country = community

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This past weekend St. Lawrence University saw a record turnout for its alumni reunion. On top of the usual festivities, this year marked another big moment in St. Lawrence history: the 40th anniversary of its study abroad program in Kenya. The first group of students travelled from Canton to Nairobi in 1972, for a two-week program, but since 1974 it's been a semester-long experience. And the connection to the East African country runs even deeper--each year since the mid-'80s, St. Lawrence has been awarding two Kenyan students full scholarships to come and do their four years of college here in the North Country.

Alumni in attendance included two members of Kenya's parliament, as well as several founders and CEOs of nonprofits devoted to bettering the lives of people in Kenya.

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Reported by

Natasha Haverty
Reporter and Producer

Late in the fall of 1971, Peter French--who was then a professor of government at St. Lawrence--was in a bit of a bind. He'd wrangled the funding and gotten the administrative go-ahead to take fifteen students more than 7,000 miles across the earth, to Nairobi, Kenya. The trouble was, he needed to find the students.

"Getting the first 15? Not so easy."

French says it was much easier to find women students, who were game to go, than it was to find men.

"One of the things is women are bigger risk takers than guys. Based on experience. And if you look a lot of these overseas programs are about 85 percent women."

Ann Chene was the baby of the first group of students to go to Kenya. "I'm game for anything I'm game for a good time. I like to go to places I haven't been before. And I've always been like that, I'm still like that."

She was only 19 when she decided to go.

"This day and age people travel all over the world. But very few have been to Africa."

She says she'd dreamed of going to Africa since she'd seen it on a globe in her primary school classroom.

But Chene says she almost couldn't go, because when she first made the trip to New York City to get her vaccines, they wouldn't administer them to her because she wasn't 21. So she had to go all the way back a second time, with her mom.

"She still remembers to this day they said is this your daughter and she said yes! And she said is it okay if we give her this yellow fever shot and she said yes!"

Students travel to Tanzania in spring of 1998. Photo courtesy of KSP's 40th anniversary celebration
Students travel to Tanzania in spring of 1998. Photo courtesy of KSP's 40th anniversary celebration
Study abroad programs were long established in countries like France, or England. But this was one of the first programs to propose going to Africa.

French says once that first group of students came back, it was a much easier sell.

"It's something that all these people remember every story. And most of them will say it's something that changed their life."

Since that first group went in 1972, two thousand students have gone through the Kenya Semester program.

From the outside looking in

On Saturday night, Kenya program alums fill one of St. Lawrence's basketball gyms. Music blares from the speakers; steam rises from metal pans of food--college food services staff has cooked a real Kenyan dinner.

Paul Robinson, a former director of the Kenya Semester Program. Photo courtesy of KSP's 40th anniversary celebration
Paul Robinson, a former director of the Kenya Semester Program. Photo courtesy of KSP's 40th anniversary celebration
And over to the left, a group of young, American St. Lawrence alums are gathering around one tall African guy.

"I am Abdelwahab Sinnary, I'm Academic Director of Kenya's semester program."

Sinnary's been working on St. Lawrence's Nairobi campus for 10 years. He's actually from Darfur, and along with being the program's academic director, he's a scholar of animal behavior.

"You know joining St. Lawrence I moved from the animal to the people side, and then I started observing people and watching them, of course including my students."

I ask Sinnary if the St. Lawrence Students he's worked with over the years are more like predators or prey.

"Well, they are predators. You know, I am the innocent pray. They try to eat me but I think I will survive another 10 years or five years. But wonderful predator prey relationship. I really enjoy them."

Paul Gilbert is another alum of the first group to go to Kenya--he landed in Nairobi in 1972 wearing a purple polyester shirt. He says the Kenyan people he met there had three big questions for him.

"The first question dealt with why are Americans going to the moon…The second question had to do with how come Americans shoot their presidents because I am sure it was soon after the Kennedy assassination."

Gilbert says the third question was the one he didn't really have the answer to.

"It was how come the black American students don't talk to the white American students, and how come the white American students are not talking with the four or five African American students that are travelling with us."

Gilbert says he still thinks about that experience to this day. He says it took a group of people from a completely different culture to help him notice what he took for granted in his own.

"Sometimes you see things from outside eyes looking in."

"The right thing at the right time"

Leila Mohammed is one of the 70 or so students from Kenya who've come to St. Lawrence on a full scholarship. She graduated in 2011. She remembers her first winter in Canton, and the first time she saw snow.

"I was like, oh goodness, there's actually ice falling from the sky--it was a good thing! Not a bad thing at the start, I was just super excited people were inside I was outside. But then after a week I was like okay this just has to go! I was like, this is too much! I was putting my sweater over my face or the hat over my face and people were commenting on it."

Leila just graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a Masters in Public Health. She says in her whole four years at St. Lawrence, she didn't see her family once, but she was rarely homesick, because of the community she'd met here.

"I'm really grateful that I've been able to work with people who are doing the right thing at the right time in Kenya. At the end of the day we want to be part of something that can positively impact the world, in one way or another. Whether you work in Canton, or whether you work in Africa, it doesn't really matter!"

Leila will be flying back to Mombasa, Kenya in the next couple weeks, where her family still lives, though she's already gotten job offers here in the states. She plans to stay there.

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