30 January 2013
AFTER GRADUATING FROM The University of Texas at Austin, John Kidenda began to pay back the scholarship that had made his college degree possible in the face of adversity.
Halfway through his college career as an engineering route business major, the native Kenyan faced the possibility of not being able to finish his degree. His mother had just been diagnosed with cancer, and his family resources were diverted to paying for her care. Not knowing what to do, Kidenda turned to his friend and mentor, Rick Reeder, a senior consultant at Dell.
But Kidenda “did not want a hand out,” Reeder said. “He wanted a hand up.”
The two had met through a job-shadowing program earlier in the year and remained in contact. When Kidenda told Reeder about the plight of so many other African students—who had so much potential and wanted to study in the United States, but lacked the financial resources to do so—Reeder thought more about what he and his friends could do to help.
“We became close friends,” Kidenda said, “and it piqued his interested in closing the education gap in Africa.”
Reeder took Kidenda under his wing, realizing how much potential the young student had.
Along with some philanthropically minded investors — and Kidenda’s personal insight into the needs of African students— Reeder began to look into starting a scholarship organization for African students.
Dubbed the African Leadership Bridge (ALB), Reeder launched the organization in 2007 after Kidenda learned of his family’s situation back home. Although Reeder and the co-founders of the ALB opened up the scholarship application to all African students, they realized that no one would be more deserving of financial assistance than Kidenda, the student who served as the original inspiration for the program.
“I was so impressed by his intellect and his passion for learning, and for gaining everything that he could out of his experience at UT,” said Reeder.
As the first recipient of the ALB scholarship, Kidenda was guaranteed the financial security he needed to finish his degree.
The scholarship is designed so that students can utilize it for the things they need most — almost like an emergency fund — in case they are unable to find work or other scholarships to offset their living costs.
“We want to commit to the students that we will cover any shortfalls they have,” Kidenda said.
Kidenda also wanted to make sure the scholarship would live on to help other African students following in his footsteps. He came up with the idea of “paying it forward” — meaning he would pay back his scholarship to the ALB after he graduated, helping to ensure that future students from Africa could have the same opportunity. Also, unlike a traditional loan, there is no interest. Payments back to the ALB are not a contract, but rather a commitment by the student to be part of a virtuous cycle.
For Reeder and Kidenda, this was the perfect solution. Those who benefit from the ALB will remain connected to the organizations after graduation. Recipients would be encouraged to not take more than they needed from the fund, and investors would like the financially sustainable model.
And Kidenda’s situation was not entirely unique — many bright and exceptional students from Sub-Saharan Africa are unable to take on the financial burden of attending college in the United States.
“Promising young leaders from this region face so many obstacles trying to attend college in the United States,” said Darcy McGillicuddy, Director of External Relations at the International Office at The University of Texas at Austin.
“We love working with organizations like ALB that do so much to make these students’ dreams a reality,” she said. “Our university is enriched by the diversity and leadership that students from Africa bring to our campus and community.
Since the organization’s creation, it has created additional partnerships with Oklahoma State University and the African Leadership Academy in South Africa. The academy features a two-year pre-university program that draws students from all over the continent. In turn, many of these students compete to be selected by the ALB to apply for admission at The University of Texas at Austin.
Three years after graduating, Kidenda, who now works as a consultant at a health care firm in Austin, is in the final stages of “paying it forward.”
Kidenda now serves on the Board for the ALB mentoring other students, but there have been challenges. It is not easy coordinating with institutions, donors and students across the world, he says, but the reward has been clear: ALB is a prestigious, flourishing program that is expanding to include more opportunities for more students.
The goal of the organization is to have graduated 25 students with the ALB scholarship by 2025, Kidenda added.
For more information on ALB, visit http://www.africanleadershipbridge.org.
Story by Forrest Burnson