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Pay It Forward: UT International Students Change Lives At Home in Africa

Ford Foundation

11 July 2012

TWO YEARS AGO Patricia Okorie and Joyce Ogogo journeyed to Austin with the determination to improve not only their own lives, but also the lives of their fellow African citizens. In May 2012, as a result of their enduring spirits and the financial support of the Ford Foundation, both women were able to overcome countless hurdles and earn graduate degrees from The University of Texas at Austin.

The Ford Foundation’s International Fellowships Program provides higher education fellowships for emerging leaders from underrepresented communities outside the United States. Over the past decade, UT has proudly hosted over 60 Ford Fellows from every corner of the world, creating a valuable cultural exchange and empowering people from underserved countries to make a real difference in their communities and the world.

Here, we learn a little bit more about what inspired Patricia and Joyce to travel so far from home in order to become members of the UT family – and how they plan to pay the experience forward.


Empowering Nigerians Young and Old Find Their Voice

At home in Nigeria, Patricia Okorie worked with school children, helping them overcome speech and language difficulties. Even though she helped them make noticeable improvement, she always searched for ways to do even more for her young students. When she learned about the International Fellowships Program and the opportunities it offered, she grew excited about the chance to pursue a master’s degree in speech and language pathology at The University of Texas at Austin.

patricia okorie

Now with her degree in hand, Patricia knows the advanced training she received at UT will help her make a real difference for children back home. “There are few trained speech and language pathologists in Nigeria. Now, I’ll be able to introduce strategies that will help children and adults build the confidence they need to overcome speech difficulties.” Patricia credits the rich variety of clinical training she received in her UT program for now expanded future plans. “As part of my clinical work at UT, I had the opportunity to work with preschool and secondary education students, as well as senior citizens. Now, in addition to working with school-age students when I return to Nigeria, I also plan to volunteer to help older adults who have struggled with speech issues their whole lives. I know these strategies will help make such a difference for their daily quality of life.”

In addition to learning a new set of skills, Patricia also learned from the cultural differences between the educational environments in Nigeria and the U.S., “In the U.S., students are encouraged to talk and ask questions during class, to give their opinions. In Nigeria, the classroom environment is much more focused on the instructor delivering a lecture, with harsh punishments for students who not follow the rules. Here in the U.S., time outs and staying after school are used to correct behavior. The approach here is much less intimidating for students, and I am excited to help bring more of that positive teacher-student interaction to classrooms in my country.”

Beyond what she learned in the classroom and through her training, Patricia returns to Nigeria with much gratitude for the extra support she received from the UT International Office. “Even before I arrived in the U.S., I felt so welcomed. Everyone was so friendly, showing me where to shop, how to do certain things – they really helped me feel at home. The English as a Second Language training was really helpful, too.” The additional support services offered by a variety of departments across campus were a big help as well, “The sessions about campus health services and the training on how to adapt to a new culture helped me feel more comfortable here. I am so grateful for all the support UT provided me during my time in the U.S.”


Changing Lives Through Special Education Services in Kenya

As a woman initially denied the opportunity to attend university in her home, Joyce Ogogo never dreamed that responding to a small advertisement in a local Kenyan newspaper would result in the opportunities that now await her in Kenya. In May 2012, Joyce will return home to work with the Kenyan Minister of Education to develop a program of specialized instruction for children with mental and intellectual disabilities, helping these young children reach their full potential.

joyce ogogo

The ad Joyce responded to was a call for application for the prestigious International Fellowships Program,  which paid for her schooling and related expenses while she completed her master’s degree in special education at UT. “The Ford Fellowship helped me get the education I dreamed of for so long. I am so grateful to the Ford Fellows program, and the UT International Office, for all the support they provided to me since they day I arrived in the US.”

Prior to beginning her master’s degree at UT, Joyce had no training in working with students with autism or developmental disabilities. Today, she has knowledge and hands-on experience working with a variety of behavioral therapy strategies. “My practicum working with kids with autism and the everyday interaction with my professors has taught me so much.”

While studying at UT, Joyce also overcame many personal hurdles, including arranging for the care of her two children while her husband worked in another Kenyan town.  “I would call my son to help him with his math homework, and to check on my nieces and nephews who are also under my care.” While juggling the responsibilities of student, wife and mother from a half world way, Joyce also faced daily challenges here in Austin, “It was so strange to me at first to see women and men hugging each other in public, and even small everyday things like how to turn on the shower faucet were so different for me. However, my new friends and neighbors, as well as the wonderful people at the International Office, helped me find my way and I am so grateful for their friendship and support.”

Joyce now welcomes the challenges that await her back home, “I’m very excited to help children with special needs gain full inclusion into public schools in Kenya, which is very different than how these children have been treated in the past. The strategies I’ve learned at UT will help me show teachers how identifying students’ needs and selecting the right interventions can help them develop the skills and confidence they need to overcome deficits in communication and socialization.”

From the small women’s leadership group she started in her hometown, to becoming the first woman in her village to earn a master’s degree, and now returning to help create educational opportunities for a whole generation of children with special needs, Joyce Ogogo has always found a way to make a positive impact on her community. Now, as Joyce returns to Kenya – and Patricia to Nigeria – both women are living proof that What Starts Here Changes the World.

Story by Angie Pastorek
Photographs by Darcy McGillicuddy

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