Engaging Africa

Strengthening relationships for the next generation of international leadership

Matt Carotenuto KSP ’98

Since our pioneering first group arrived for a January-Term experiment in 1972, St. Lawrence has built a historic connection to East Africa. Through St. Lawrence’s Kenya Program, more than 2,200 students have spent a transformative semester or summer in Nairobi. And thanks to a generous scholarship program, dozens of Kenyan alumni have returned home with St. Lawrence degrees in hand. 

None of this could have happened without the support of alumni and a dedicated group of faculty, staff, and local partners throughout the region. With a new Engaging Africa Initiative, Laurentians will ensure another 50 years of international education excellence.

Encountering vs. Engagement

Speak with longtime Kenya Program academic director Dr. Abdelwahab Sinnary, and you will learn very quickly that beneath his welcoming grin lies a rigorous commitment to intercultural learning. Sinnary often tells students and alumni that the Kenya Program avoids the “snapshot” approach to encountering East Africa as an outside observer. Instead, the program privileges immersion so that students can engage with African issues from an empathetic local perspective. We stayed true to these core values when we designed a 2019 alumni trip as we set off on a 10-day mini-semester in Kenya. 

Seventeen alumni and friends from the class of 1968–2014 experienced the impact of St. Lawrence’s deep tradition of African engagement last summer. For some, it was a chance to revisit their formative roots as alumni of the Kenya Program. For others, it was an opportunity to experience some of the rich stories they have heard from fellow Laurentians who trace back important life lessons to their own experiences in Kenya. For me, it was an occasion to pay tribute to my own roots as a student on the Kenya Program, and an honor to co-lead the trip as a member of the St. Lawrence faculty.

Starting at our home base in Nairobi, participants stayed on campus like current students and explored St. Lawrence history and connections in Kenya’s cosmopolitan capital city. With well over a hundred years of collective experience, our Nairobi staff helped us navigate a bustling city of over 4 million which has grown exponentially in size since many of our alumni were students in the program. 

Representing the long history of engagement, more than 70 people turned up to a special gathering of local alumni and friends of the program. Amid the stories shared that evening was a special one by Chachu Ganya ’96. 

Ganya grew up in the dry rangelands of northern Kenya, and when former St. Lawrence program director Paul Robinson told him he would need to get a straight-A average to even have a shot at one of  St. Lawrence’s two annual Kenyan scholarships, he answered the challenge. Winning the scholarship a few years later, Ganya faced an additional challenge; he had never been outside of his region to Nairobi, let alone somewhere as faraway as Canton, New York. 

Grappling with adjusting to life outside of the pastoralist North Country of Kenya, the Kenya Program welcomed Ganya to our Nairobi campus where he adjusted to city life and bonded with St. Lawrence students for several months before his journey to Northern New York. 

Thriving during his four years at St. Lawrence, Ganya represents the best of the St. Lawrence-Kenya connection. With his good friend Chris Bunting ’93, he co-founded the Northern Kenya Fund to help provide educational opportunities for other talented students from the rural borderlands. As one of the many organizations designed to give back, which alumni have co-founded with Kenyan partners, the program’s core lessons have inspired countless students to make lifelong connections across cultural and geographic divides. This commitment to community engagement continues to inspire Ganya’s work in education and as a member of Kenya’s National Assembly since he was elected to parliament in 2013.

Rural Traditions and Change

Leaving Nairobi and the Kenya Program's home base, our 2019 alumni group then headed north to the highlands of the Mount Kenya region. Spending time with our rural homestay families, we were introduced to the traditional cuisine of Kikuyu society and the hospitality of the local Nyeri community. 

We were welcomed to one of the small farms where students learn about rural agricultural life. Alumni got a sense of both the deep continuity and change with the curriculum over more than four decades of the program's history. 

Three of the participants on the trip in particular represent the profound family impact of this history. Mary Peterson ’82, Haley Peterson KSP ’10, and Addie Peterson ’14, returned to Kenya as three of the record eight Petersons who have spent a semester in Kenya. As Mary recounted, it all started when her late husband Barrett Peterson ’82 was admitted to the program, even though he turned in his application late. Paying tribute to Barrett’s pioneering legacy, multiple generations of Petersons have remained true to the St. Lawrence-Kenya connection and internalized the value of these East African experiences in their lives and careers long after graduation.

Engaging Africa: Building on Our Legacy

Leaving our rural host community, the remainder of the trip was spent exploring the connections between wildlife conservation and develop-ment. From analyzing the challenges of rhino conservation in Laikipia to witnessing a rare leopard sighting in Nakuru, participants experienced the awe-inspiring beauty of Kenya’s rich biodiversity. Whether it was perched from the summit of a 9,000-foot volcano in the Great Rift Valley or cruising by hippo pods on Lake Naivasha, these unique experiences sparked our ongoing conversations and debates about the tensions between preserving Kenyan environments and promoting development in a fast-paced and growing economy. 

Each day, discussions between and among the Kenya program staff and multiple generations of Laurentians continued late into the evening. Alumni were reminded of why St. Lawrence is recognized as the gold standard for study abroad in Africa by our peer institutions and colleagues. 

With the Engaging Africa Initiative, we have set an ambitious goal of raising more than $1 million to support our leadership in African studies in the liberal arts as well as expand our tradition of excellence abroad by the KSP’s 50th anniversary in 2024. This endowment will build on the strong relationships in Kenya and expands our reach throughout the continent. Thanks to generous support from many alumni already, we are well on our way.

To support Engaging Africa contact Barb Knauf at bknauf@stlawu.edu.