“The thing that makes education so powerfully important to me is that I would not be here today if I did not have access to quality education,” Peter Gitau, vice president of Student Affairs said. For his entire life education has been the driving force behind Gitau’s success, from his humble start to now at NKU he strives to make education a possibility for everyone.
Gitau was born in Kenya and every day, once they were all school aged, he and his two brothers and four sisters would trek four miles barefoot to attend their small village school. At the school the classes would be filled with upwards of 30 children who would often share only one class book. Life was simple on the farm Gitau was raised on, there was no electricity and food was not always readily available. However it was those daily treks, totaling at least eight miles back and forth, and other hardships that first inspired a passion for education in Gitau.
“Those kinds of things [the distance and lack of resources] I think motivated us, there was quite a good group of us who in spite of that went on to do good things, and study and get advanced education,” Gitau said.
Gitau was one of those students who would advance his education. At 13, Gitau attend a boarding school. From there he would go on to attend Kenyatta University earning his bachelor’s degree in secondary education. Even though his life was much more centered in the city he would often return home.
“I still kept coming back to the village because I loved the simplicity and the calmness and the fresh air,” Gitau said.
Gitau’s passion for pursuing an education also came from his greatest inspiration, his father. Though he passed away in 1999 Gitau’s father remains as a huge influence in his life. After being detained while fighting for liberation from the British, his father lost a good job and then found a new one working as a painter on a college campus in the city.
His father was “intrigued” by the environment around him and hoped to see at least one of his own become a part of that world. Since he worked in the city, they would only physically see him twice a month, but when he returned home he would always stay up late telling Gitau and his sibling’s stories of the pomp and circumstance he saw on campus.
“He did not have much in life, but he told me once, and my brothers and sisters, ‘I don’t have a lot for you to inherit from me, I don’t have land or vehicles, but I’m going to make sure each of you gets a quality education’,” Gitau said.
Gitau came to the United States, with the support of colleagues at the girls boarding school at which he taught he was able to gather the money to take the opportunity to attend Eastern Illinois University where he’d earn his master’s degree. He would then go on to earn his PH.D at the University of Kansas.
“I think by looking at our environment and our circumstances we were very determined, and I know personally I was, I was very, very determined to make sure I did not grow old in that environment,” Gitau said.
A ‘bridge’ to Kenya
Gitau’s upbringing has provided him with a unique perspective and opportunity to help others in Kenya now. For many years now he has returned home, taking a group students with him to help educate them and the students in Kenya.
Unlike here were K-12 education is free over there it is not. The government might provide some teachers, may provide some classrooms, but generally it falls on the parents to pay for education, which can be extremely difficult. For ten years, through his first non-profit organization ‘Teach my Kenyan Children’ Gitau worked to provide programs to help better educate students, establish feeding programs in some schools, and find scholarships for promising students who could not afford to attend secondary school.
“These kids go to school and don’t have the bare essentials of learning,” Gitau said. ““I think about the chance that they have to get something out of all of that, and if there is something I can do I’m going to do it”
One of his favorite aspects of returning home with students, some of whom have never left the U.S., is taking them to his old school and village home to see where his opportunity began. The student’s even settle, living with a host family in a small village, for seven days when they go.
The biggest roadblock for students that Gitau has cited is an uneven field of advantage. Students in Kenya, when leaving primary school all take the same test. Children from small villages with little to no resources take the same test as city children who have extensive resources at their grasp. The test determines what secondary school you go to, and often times, even when they score high enough, children from small villages do not attend secondary school due to the high cost. Gitau hopes to level the chances and make it a more equal chance for every student to earn a quality education.
“You invest in their education you invest in the whole family, and therefore invest in the community,” Gitau said.
Gitau now runs a new non-profit organization called ‘The African International Foundation for Educational Excellence’. On last year’s trip to Kenya, instead of taking students, Gitau took faculty members both from NKU and other universities at which he’s worked in the past to help train Kenyan teachers.
A shorter trip than his usual, Gitau and his colleagues spent one week doing various training sessions to improve teacher quality.
“I approach my work here with a very strong sense of dedication, because I see myself as a bridge between that community and this community,” Gitau said. “There’s always this sense of going home, and what I have tried to do is to mix my going home with activities that bridge the community I’m living in and the communities over there.”
Gitau has become a known name in Kenya for his work with improving the school system. He’s built six separate libraries in schools, and has even caught the attention of the government to improve the quality of education.
In his latest trip he spearheaded the signing of an international agreement between NKU and Mt. Kenya University. As a result of this agreement NKU will have the ability to exchange faculty, staff and students in addition to many other mutual benefits. Dr. Lenore Kinne, from the education department, and trustee board member Andra Ward were part of the delegation.
Life at NKU
Gitau has only been at NKU for a year, but he’s hoping to leave a lasting mark on the fairly young university which he calls “dynamic”.
Though in the past his roles at universities have been more one-on-one with students he now feels he has the opportunity to make a larger difference in the lives of students. He feels he can connect with any student, because he himself has not come from any privileged background and can understand what students go through.
“The main gratification that I get from my job is that I get to work on programs that are impacting students at the very core points of their lives,” Gitau said. “I get to hear stories of what students are dealing with and then from the vantage point of a vice president I have the ability to make a difference.”
Gitau also likes the size of NKU.
“I always wanted to come to a campus that was a little more intimate, where I don’t have to take a bus form east campus to west campus,” Gitau said.
Gitau’s son also attends NKU, which is a great source of pride for him.
He sees it as a great time to be at NKU, and he has a strong passion for the work he is doing.
“I may not be the kind of person that screams and yells and jumps everywhere but I’m a very passionate individual. I pursue my goals very, very passionately. I believe I’m a global educator and sometimes you can go to a place and people may never notice what you do until you’re gone, so if there’s anything I can contribute, if there’s anyone I can talk to and encourage, if there’s any connection I can make I’m more than willing to do that, Gitau said. “I’m not just here doing a job, I’m a man on a mission and my mission is to make sure that every person gets the opportunities that they can, because I believe strongly that education is the key.”