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Jerry Davich: Kenyan’s studies at VU make big world smaller

Updated: November 5, 2013 6:02AM



Until just a couple months ago, Mercy Ngetich had lived her entire life without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing.

That’s when the 21-year-old Valparaiso University student traveled to Northwest Indiana from her homeland, a remote village called Olengururone in Kenya. There, she walked to a river nearly a mile away several times a day for fresh water. She cooked outdoors over an open flame and used an outhouse. And she dreamed of someday attending an American university.

“My plan and vision in life is to excel in school and become a successful young woman,” she told me. “I want to return to my village, start my own business and also a foundation to help other women and children in the world.” (A video of Mercy is at the Post-Tribune website and my Facebook page.)

Mercy’s story of serendipity began in spring 2012, when VU graduate Tina Hodges went to Mount Kilimanjaro as part of the Freedom Climb to bring awareness to human trafficking. On the plane, Hodges just happened to sit next to Lucy Borus, an African missionary returning home to Kenya to visit her family — Mercy’s family.

The women chatted during the flight about global issues involving women and girls, including female genital mutilation and gender biases in developing countries. They shared a dream to bring female scholars from those countries to the U.S.

Borus instantly knew the perfect first candidate for such an international endeavor: her niece, Mercy.

At that point, another VU graduate got involved — Joanne Lehmann, Hodges’ college roommate in the early 1980s.

“Investing in women is one of the most powerful forces for good we can unleash,” said Lehmann, a speech and language pathologist at the Porter County Interlocal.

“The benefits to society of educating women are well-documented, and empowering women yields undeniable returns,” said Lehmann, who will be on my Casual Fridays radio show today at noon on 89.1-FM, streaming at lakeshorepublicmedia.org.

In January, Mercy began the application process to attend VU and by late March she was accepted with a financial scholarship.

Six women (four of them VU grads) have raised $23,000 to date, and even paid for Mercy’s airfare from Kenya via Zurich.

Mercy’s academic record and credentials were reviewed by the council members of St. Peter Lutheran Church in Portage. They are holding the funds for her financial guarantee. (Send tax-deductible donations to St. Peter Church, 6540 Central Ave.)

On Aug. 12, Mercy finally met Lehmann, spending the first week at her Ogden Dunes home without knowing a soul in this country.

“Joanne took me everywhere, including shopping and to Chicago and to the beach,” said Mercy, the second of five children; she had never seen a beach of any kind.

Region residents and Americans in general are friendlier than she expected after forming her opinions in Africa by watching Hollywood movies with her family.

Her father, Daniel Ngetich, is a salesman for a tea-packing company. Her mother, Jane, is a housewife. Both practice subsistence farming, Catholicism and the worldwide mantra that education is key for their children’s future.

In her hometown, Mercy’s family hosted a fundraiser inviting villagers to contribute according to their ability. The grassroots collection was enough to send her to Kabarak University, where she majored in finance. She’s continuing her major at VU, living in a dorm and hoping for a summer job or internship in this field (hint, hint).

“I believe Valparaiso will open a door of opportunity for me and other women in my village,” said Mercy, who subscribes to an age-old adage: “You educate a woman and you educate a whole village.”

“From an early age, I witnessed injustices towards those who could not articulate their problems because of social, economic, religious or political disadvantage,” she wrote in her scholarship application. “I had to overcome many challenges, such as discrimination of girls, preferential treatment of boys, inadequate educational resources and outdated traditions.”

She is starting a courageous new tradition for her family, for her village and for women everywhere who can draw on Mercy’s inspirational story to realize their own dreams.

Look for occasional updates on Mercy’s new life here.



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