Students who overcame challenges are dedicated to helping others
Commencement is the happiest day of the year at a university. Smiling graduates and their families pose around campus for the pictures that memorialize the occasion. And graduation speakers often play off that word, “commencement,” declaring the day to be the beginning of a shining future.
But graduation really isn’t the beginning for any student. Preparation for life begins in childhood, with families, friends, teachers. Every student arrives on campus having already passed “go.” Back stories are unique to individuals, however, and some include significant challenge. Take Pauline Nalumansi and Kaitlyn Fitzgerald. They grew up worlds apart, and they shouldered more than their share of pain as children, but their paths crossed at W. P. Carey, and both are determined to make a positive mark on the world.
Move on, keep believing and work hard
Accountancy and computer information systems sophomore Pauline Nalumansi is a MasterCard scholar, one of 40 students from Africa who are on full scholarship at ASU. She’s a leader in CollegeTown ASU — a student organization that embraces diversity, develops leadership, empowers students and fosters social justice. She’s also a mentor in the Fleischer Scholars Program, a summer residential program for high potential, economically disadvantaged high school juniors.
Outward appearances suggest that Pauline is typical of W. P. Carey’s most talented undergrads, but her path to Arizona State University started far away from the southwest, in Africa. It was a bumpy and sometimes treacherous journey. And considering the setbacks she faced, her presence on campus is nearly miraculous.
Pauline was born and raised in Rakai, Uganda. When she was two and a half her mother died and her father remarried, but it was not a happy home for her and her brother. They were beaten by their father, and their stepmother favored her own children. After AIDS took her father when Pauline was 12, her stepmother threw the two children out into the street.
This turned out to be just the beginning of a series of traumas and challenges, any one of which could have ended in tragedy. Over the next several years, Pauline found herself in living situations that initially offered safety and shelter, but too often turned out to be at best temporary and sometimes dangerous. She was abused and exploited, often put to work as an unpaid maid: the scars on her arms are a reminder that for a while she washed all of the laundry for nine people by hand, scrubbing until the skin on her wrists bled. Along the way, she lost track of her brother.
“Education became so meaningful to me. I started encouraging myself, because education was the only thing that overcame the pain of not being loved.”
Through it all, however, there was school. “Education became so meaningful to me,” she said. “I started encouraging myself, because education was the only thing that overcame the pain of not being loved.”
Her break came when she met Catharine Coon, an American who had founded a mission and aid organization in Uganda called HopeAlive!, which among other things locates sponsors to support orphaned children. Coon found Pauline a sponsor who paid her school fees and something extra for clothes, etc. In 2009 she joyfully finished high school.
The next few years weren’t easy, however. Housing remained a constant challenge, so she took any small job she could find, such as washing cars and cleaning toilets, to pay for her own small room and save money for college. She was awarded a university scholarship, only to lose it when it was sold by a corrupt official to a student with connections. But she was 19 and determined, and she eventually won another scholarship, to the two-year Uganda College of Commerce, where she concentrated on accounting.
The chance to travel to America and study at ASU came while she was working as an accounting assistant. Coon had been out of touch with Pauline, but found her and offered her a job and good pay at HopeAlive!, and encouraged her to apply to the MasterCard Scholars program at ASU. Pauline was skeptical, because it is difficult to get a visa to go to America, but out of 500 applicants, she was one of the 40 selected. She’s now living in one of the new dorms on campus, and taking advantage of every opportunity to learn and serve.
Attending the CollegeTown retreat turned out to be a turning point. After all she’s been through, the program is teaching her to “let it go and forgive,” she said. And last summer, when she spent a week as a mentor in the Fleischer Scholars Program, she learned that some American youth face similar problems growing up, and that the solution is to “move on, keep believing and work hard.”
For now, her plan for the future is to return to her starting point: Uganda. She wants to start an organization that will provide decent housing to low income families, including those headed by children and by single mothers.
“I want to encourage children, especially the youth who might be going through the same struggles I went through, she said. “I want to do this through training, self-empowerment workshops and small business start-ups, and connect them to opportunities as they come along.”
Pauline met Kaitlyn Fitzgerald through the MasterCard program, where Kaitlyn had a student job. “Watching her do her job with so much love, energy, commitment and hard work gave me the motivation to work hard, stay positive and take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way,” Pauline said. “I’m going to go home and try to make things better.”
Making sustainable change
Kaitlyn, who graduated in December, says she can’t talk about her plans for the future unless she first describes her childhood.
When Kaitlyn was born, her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a side effect of the drugs that helped her complete the pregnancy. As a child and teenager, Kaitlyn was an integral part of the family care-giving team, starting “as early as I can remember.” When reporters came to the house to learn about her mother’s experimental brain surgery, it was third-grade Kaitlyn who rattled off the long names of the medications. She was home taking care of her mom during the day when her siblings were at school and her father at work. And there were special commitments, too. The summer of her high school sophomore year Kaitlyn drove her mother from Gilbert, Arizona to downtown Phoenix five days a week for physical therapy.
It wasn’t the script of a stereotypical suburban childhood. But in December, Kaitlyn graduated with a 4.0 grade point average, earning B.A. degrees in Global Studies and Business Administration Public Service/Public Policy. She delivered not one but two speeches: at the convocations for the W. P. Carey School, where she was the Outstanding Graduating Senior, and at Barrett, the Honors College. During her time at ASU she was a leader at Changemaker Central and after graduation she worked for the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, which supports students from Sub-Saharan Africa. Today she has a new job as a business development analyst at Zero Mass Water Inc. in Scottsdale.
They say that adversity will either kill you or make you stronger, and in Kaitlyn’s case, the events of her early years developed strength, and gave her a mission in life to help other people.
When she was in fifth grade, her 23-year-old brother Ryan died suddenly from a heart malformation. Parkinson’s feeds on stress, so grief accelerated her mother’s disease. For the next 5 years, Kaitlyn kept to herself, grieving her brother and taking care of her mother. But, she said, “as negative as that time was, a lot of good came out of it.” She read holocaust literature, and it taught her empathy. She came away thinking if the children who suffered through the camps could survive, she could prevail too. But she didn’t know that the horror of genocide still existed in the world until she stumbled upon a book about a boy who was forced to become a soldier in Sierra Leone. “It changed my life,” she said.
As a high school student, she researched the conflict in South Sudan and began working with an aid organization in Phoenix that helped orphans known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. She volunteered for several years, developing a three-level program to teach the refugees English and civics, so that they might ultimately become citizens. “I learned so much from them, but what my mother likes to point out is they helped me heal from my experiences and stop identifying as a victim.” The work she did with the Lost Boys set her on the path of social innovation and civic engagement.
“Any person who wants to reach their potential can do so here at ASU, through a lens of community contribution.”
Kaitlyn had her eye on the University of California, Berkeley, but decided on ASU so she could be near her family. “I was immediately sold on my decision at orientation when I saw the words ‘At ASU we measure our success on who we include and how they succeed,’” she said. “That means any person who wants to reach their potential can do so here at ASU, through a lens of community contribution.”
She transferred into the W. P. Carey School when she discovered social entrepreneurship. Non-profits do a world of good, she said, but they all draw from the same finite pool. “I saw the potential for sustainable, lasting impact, that didn’t just fix the current circumstance, but prevented the issues from happening in the first place — systems changing work,” she said. “But what I understood the least was how to build a business model, to apply business principles to make the world better. I wanted to learn accounting and finance and economics.”
She admits the business classes were tough, but she managed to earn straight A’s nevertheless, and she put what she learned to work when she founded her company, Anidaso.
At first she sold purses made in Ghana to raise money for a scholarship program that covers high school expenses for four children in Ghana. In fact, Pauline helped her sell the purses at art shows in downtown Gilbert.
“We now have partnerships with students at Ashesi University in Ghana who operate the project as a mentoring and tutoring program in addition to the scholarships provided,” Kaitlyn said. “Anidaso has evolved into a business building connections between our community and the community of Ashesi University in Ghana to support the change making ideas of even more students at the institution.”
She adds: “I truly believe in leveraging the work being done by communities across the continent. If I have the opportunity to someday bring all of my passions together — Arabic, social innovation and global development — I would be thrilled.”
Her graduation speeches reflect her mindset. As her mother and father listened in the audience, she reminded her classmates to make a difference at work and in their communities, and “to remember the values we were educated under, because we are all graduates of the New American University, and that means something really profound.”
This story was first published in the Spring 2016 issue of the
W. P. Carey magazine.