Teresa Wasonga is grateful for ignorance.
Without it, she says, she probably wouldn’t have felt compelled to learn so much during her doctoral program at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
She probably would have doubted that climbing aboard the single-engine plane sent to fly her to an interview for her first faculty job in the United States was worth the trip.
Most importantly, she probably wouldn’t have embarked on building and opening the Jane Adeny Memorial School (JAMS) for girls in Muhoroni, Kenya. A school is nothing but walls, right? What else could it possibly need?
“I was really naïve when I went to Missouri,” says Wasonga, a professor in the NIU College of Education’s Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations. “I didn’t know anything about the American education system. Zero. I had to start from scratch.”
But her studies at Mizzou did more than stuff her head with information. They bolstered her confidence, stoked her imagination and stirred her ambition.
“In the midst of all these professionals, who were so knowledgeable, I felt like I didn’t know anything,” she says. “But I longed to be like them. I longed to do what they had already done.”
And with all of their accomplishments in the United States, she wondered: What was left? And, then, another question: Why not in Kenya?
JAMS is the result of those questions – and a major reason behind Wasonga’s selection for the 2017 MU College of Education Outstanding Professional Achievement Award. She will receive her honor March 10 at the MU College of Education 49th Annual Recognition Awards Banquet.
Candidates for the award must have completed at least eight years of professional service since the most recent MU degree was earned, along with demonstrating tangible accomplishments with positive impact and results as well as the potential and promise for continued growth and success in their field.
Humble as ever, though, Wasonga says her alumni award truly belongs to everyone who helped her along the way and who continue to support the school. That includes her husband, Andrew Otieno, a professor in the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.
“The work I do, and the fulfillment I get out of it, is enough for me,” she says. “I’m just happy to prove that, even if you are poor, and a girl, you can emerge and do something. I proved it to myself, and I proved to everyone I met and told, ‘We can do better.’ And they said, ‘What do you mean?’ ”
JON TURNER, WHO NOMINATED WASONGA for the award, met her when they both began the doctoral program at Mizzou.
“Teresa has a way about her that makes you want to help,” says Turner, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Missouri State University. “She is so organized and dedicated that you know you’re not wasting your time when you work with her. She’ll put the resources and help she’s offered to good use.”
He remembers well when his classmate began talking about her visions for Kenya.
“If most people told me they were going to take on a project that large, I would have been skeptical. But with Teresa, I thought she might just be able to pull this off – and, of course, she has,” Turner says.
“It is truly a credit to Teresa that she never forgot about the challenges girls face in Kenya, and it is a blessing for the girls that Teresa’s memory is paired with exceptional leadership skills.”
Ehren Jarrett, superintendent of the Rockford Public Schools and alum of the NIU College of Education, calls Wasonga a “truly extraordinary” educator committed “to the highest standards of professionalism and quality. She embodies innovation, engagement, diversity, collaboration and equity.”
In chairing Jarrett’s dissertation committee, Wasonga prepared him to “co-create leadership,” a skill the superintendent relies on daily to “empower, engage and energize” his team of 4,500 employees.
Jarrett is equally inspired by Wasonga’s labors on the other side of the world.
“The power of Dr. Wasonga’s work goes beyond the impact on Kenyan children,” Jarrett says. “The thousands of supporters of JAMS have been connected to a much-larger world moving far beyond the confines of our comfortable lives.”
WASONGA’S FIRST STEPS TOWARD building the Jane Adeny Memorial School came while she, Otieno and some fellow Kenyans in the Chicago area began sending money to their homeland to pay student fees for children there.
But when she learned that most Kenyan boys were performing well in school while many girls were not, it sharply troubled her – and she told the school leaders so: “I said, ‘These are brilliant girls who could do well if only we showed an interest in them.’ ”
So Wasonga began to tuck $1,000 from every paycheck aside, denying herself anything beyond her own basic needs. Similarly, if she skipped a meal during the day, those unspent dollars funneled into the kitty.
One year later, she had $20,000 – as well as 10 acres of Kenyan land her mother had found.
“I took off the summer of 2009,” she says. “By the time I came back, I had four classrooms built. I never looked back.”
After easily convincing Otieno of the need to obtain a home equity loan, she and her husband returned in 2010 to work more on the new school. During her 2011 sabbatical, Wasonga opened the doors – seven years ahead of the 10-year deadline she gave herself.
Looking back, she shakes her head and dubs it all “unbelievable” – and says she believes that “ignorance was probably the best skill I had.”
She remembers asking Kenyan parents to have faith in her, that sending their daughters away to JAMS was “better than this situation – they were not in school at all – and that we couldn’t do any more harm than society was already doing to them.”
When the first semester of classes began, Wasonga gathered those young pioneers for a pep talk.
“I told them, ‘Let’s just give it our best shot. This is your chance. This is an opportunity. We will buy books. We will study. We will work hard, and we will succeed,’ ” she says. “I looked at these girls, and they were so empowered. I thought, ‘They will do whatever it takes. Now I can’t disappoint them.’ ”
Plenty of bright and talented young girls now have graduated from JAMS and moved on to college; one of them – Revela Odhuna – is a nursing student at NIU.
And, as Wasonga prepares to return to Missouri to receive her award, she is grateful for the preparation she received there – and for a long-ago vote of confidence from Professor Phillip Messner.
“I felt like I had so much to give, but I wasn’t giving. He said, ‘You’ll do great things someday.’ To hear this from someone I had looked at and thought, ‘Wow, he can do anything;’ to think he’d seen something in me. I thought maybe I didn’t know myself well. Maybe I could do something.”
It’s something she now instills in NIU College of Education students because, she says, JAMS is the proof that a curriculum of best practices is a sound one.
“The Jane Adeny Memorial School has been my laboratory of practice. Everything I learned at Missouri, I tried there. I tried everything I could remember,” she says. “Empowering children. Giving children a voice. Providing an environment conducive for learning. Distributed leadership. I had absorbed all these things – and they actually work.”