Victor Obonyo ’07 and Dr. Dia Berend Obonyo ’07 started out worlds apart. He grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, and she was raised in rural Texas. What their upbringings have in common, however, is they made attending college a financial challenge. Berea College made it possible for both to surmount that hurdle. They graduated in 2007 and have since dedicated themselves to helping others overcome the barriers that hold them back from realizing their full potential.
Dr. Dia Obonyo studied Spanish and sociology in college. Service-learning opportunities with the Latinx community, especially through the Hispanic Outreach Program (HOP), were foundational to her career path. Translating hospital documents into Spanish and talking with people at health fairs revealed the issues many in the Latinx community have accessing healthcare and piqued her interest in getting involved.
“I was drawn to public health because it focuses on prevention,” she said. “This population experiences real barriers to care.”
HOP introduced Dr. Obonyo to her first job after graduation. She worked at a community health center serving primarily Spanish-speaking clients. During her six years there, she came to understand through the patients what it is like to be an immigrant with limited ability to speak English. The experience solidified her vocation to work toward equitable access to healthcare.
Dr. Obonyo proceeded to earn both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in public health at the University of Kentucky (UK). She says her leadership roles at Berea gave her the necessary tools to succeed in her work as viral hepatitis coordinator at the Kentucky Department of Public Health. She also teaches an undergraduate course on global health at UK.
Victor Obonyo majored in computer science and mathematics at Berea, a noteworthy accomplishment considering he had never used a computer until he arrived at Berea. He was drawn to the major by the way computer science and software development are tools for solving problems.
An internship in Whitesburg, Ky., was formational in developing Obonyo’s career interest in technology. He spent a summer in the small community designing a human resources information technology system for the city government. Working on a real-life application boosted his confidence. Having that internship and applicable labor positions on his résumé gave him a foot in the door when job hunting.
Obonyo earned a master’s degree in computer science at Miami University. He works at UK’s Research Information Services developing software that supports faculty research projects and facilitates grants.
“At Berea, I received a world-class education with nothing out of pocket, and that allowed me to attend graduate school,” he said. “It was the best gift I have ever received.”
Education is a cornerstone for the Obonyos, and one of their passion projects is supporting a high school in Victor’s ancestral village. While he attended some of the best schools in Kenya, education in this rural community lags behind urban areas like Nairobi. Secondary school is not free in Kenya, and previously, students in his village had to walk seven miles—two hours one way—to reach the nearest school. For many families, it was out of reach. Instead of making the trek to school, teens were working locally on farms, going to cities to work as domestic help or becoming young brides.
Kowet Secondary School started when local parents, many of whom are subsistence farmers, banded together to provide expanded educational opportunities for their children. The school is a game changer for the 250 youth who attend.
When the Obonyos learned about the school, they began to raise funds from friends in the United States and have been able to support the work of the Kenyan community leaders in profound ways. They visit Kowet almost every year to see progress and talk to staff about current needs.
The school facilities were rough at first. Buildings had leaky roofs and dirt floors, and some classes met outside under the trees. Classrooms have since been renovated to have concrete floors, solid roofs and electricity. Hygiene was improved by adding pit latrines and a water well. As the momentum generated by the community caught the attention of the government, it hired more teachers and contributed to building improvements. Now the students benefit from a state-of-the-art science lab and a small computer lab, almost unimaginable resources in the area. The next step is a library, so students will have a place with electricity to work on homework.
The school is giving students opportunities their parents could only imagine and is a point of community pride. For the first time ever, students in the village are passing college qualifying exams and have the hope of further education.
“Like Berea, Kowet is serving bright students who lacked opportunity,” Victor said. “I always wanted to give back to my community.”
The Obonyos’ impulse to give back extends to their Berea community as well. Dia returns to share her expertise in health access with students in the Hispanic Outreach Program. Victor participates in computer seminars to share his industry insights. They remain involved with international students, especially other Kenyans, offering rides and a home away from home. They also give financially to the school.
“It is hard to overstate the profound impact Berea College has had on my life,” Dr. Obonyo said. “It shaped what I would do and who I would be. It is really set up to help its lower income, often first-generation, students overcome barriers and succeed beyond Berea.”