Jacob Odhoch Okumu, Ohio University
2012 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Keynote Speaker Jacob Okumu is a Ph.D. Candidate in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where he serves as a Resident Director on campus. He has participated in service learning projects in Rwanda, Tanzania, the Republic of Tchad, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Honduras. Additionally, Okumu has worked as a clinical counselor with the United States Department of Defense at Fort Meade in Maryland. Recently, Jacob completed a two year appointment as a graduate associate for the US Department of Education College Adjustment TRIO Program at Ohio University where he served students who are traditionally under-represented in higher education. He earned his Master of Science degree in Counseling from Loyola University in Maryland. Being born and raised in the city of Mombasa in the Republic of Kenya, Jacob’s native language is Dholuo, but he is comfortable speaking French, English, KiGiriama, and Kiswahili. Professional Title: PhD Candidate, Higher Education and Student Affairs
How and why did you first become interested in service learning?
I first became interested in service learning during my study abroad experiences in the republic of Tchad, North Africa, as an honors student in philosophy and humanities from the University of Zimbabwe, in Southern Africa. I lived in a couple of home stays in a high poverty community of Sarh, Southern Tchad, and later in Abéché, in the Sahara—with a view to learning the French and Arabic language within a francophone culture. I spent most of my free time with les enfants de la rue (street children) playing soccer, fishing, and swimming in the river, while teaching them Basic English phrases. They in turn, not only shared with me lessons on how to appreciate what I had always taken for granted—stable family, regular meals, the opportunity to go school, and above all the gift of life and friendship. This was for me a critical class in experiential learning, civic engagement, and pursuit for social justice. Indeed earlier on in my undergraduate experience, I had also been privileged to be part of the transition process in post-genocide Rwanda. As a young student, I worked for a UNHCR Youth project in refugee transitional camps soon after the Rwandan genocide of 1994. During that time, I was charged with the responsibility of designing recreational, and experiential learning programs for the youth in the refugee camps. When I joined Ohio University for the graduate program in higher education and student affairs, the passion for the social justice component of higher education, youth empowerment, and experiential learning was rekindled anew by my doctoral dissertation chair, Professor Pete Mather, who shared about his experiences living and working in a high poverty communityin Honduras, and his desire to encourage young student personnel professionals like me to explore the possibility of integrating service learning as part of our training as student affairs professionals who seek to inculcate holistic growth and development among college students.
Tell us about the Honduras service learning project. What are its goals? With whom will you be working? How long will you be there? What do you hope to accomplish? What is the history of the project?
The Honduras Service-Learning Project is sponsored by the Higher Education Program at Ohio University and is directed by Dr. Pete Mather. The project goal is to encourage future educators and students at Ohio University to critically and reflectively engage in experiential learning opportunities that are dedicated to addressing the quality of life issues among world’s most advantaged people. The program includes service-learning experience in the Agalta Valley, rural Honduras, as well as visits to NGO’s and institutions of higher education in the cities of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro. The participants not only “do” service learning by way of active engagement in community development projects and school-based activities but also gain an understanding of how the educational system in Honduras serves the economic and social development needs of the Honduran people. During my two weeks in Honduras, I hope to share my own life experiences with young adults in Agalta valley, and explore how their life and educational experiences in a high poverty community impact their future goals.
What will be your role in the Honduras service-learning project and how did you learn about it? Why do you think it will be worth the time and effort you will need to help make it successful?
I will participate in the Honduras service-learning project as a researcher and as a volunteer in the community development projects (such as construction of basic amenities such as bathroom facilities, building repairs, and animal husbandry, and after school youth activities). I learnt of this opportunity through Dr. Pete Mather, who serves as my dissertation chair and the director of the service-learning project. It is worth my time and effort since the project is consistent with my passion for social justice, youth empowerment, civic engagement, and experiential learning.
In what kind of research are you involved for your doctoral degree?
I am focusing on exploring lived experiences of at-risk young adults as they transition into college and its implications for student support services on college campus environments.
What are your career plans? How did you become interested in this type of career?
I look forward to a career in student affairs’ administration. Working with young adults in refugee camps, in high poverty communities, and military families transitioning into civilian life and embarking on college careers have given me a passionate desire to continue to explore and develop programs that assist in college student transitional experiences, growth and development.
You have many other interests and are involved in other types of activities. Can you tell us about those?
I current serve as Graduate Associate for the College Adjustment Program at Ohio University. The College Adjustment Program is funded by the US Department of Education, TRIO programs. I mentor first-generation, low-income students on one-to-one conferences to ensure they are on the track to academic success and realization of their life goals. Once a week I co-teach courses, and mentor students during their practicum experiences on Global Issues at the Global Leadership Center (GLC) of Ohio University. The GLC offers a two-year under graduate certificate program that focuses on global concerns such as poverty, inter-faith dialogue, international relations, environmental concerns, and global trade with focuses on South East Asia, India, Africa and Europe. The program entails experiential learning, and engages both class work and field research in targeted countries.
You are from Kenya. Tell us a little about your background.
I was born and raised up in the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenya. I am the eldest in a family of 2 siblings. I spent most of childhood with my grandparents who were professional traditional healers. I studied philosophy, education, and humanities during my college years in Kenya and Zimbabwe. I have done some social work in the Rwandese refugee camps immediately after the genocide in Rwanda, and taught space building and conflict transformation courses at the college level in Kenya for 3 years. After graduating from Loyola University Maryland with an MS in counseling in 2008, I worked as a clinical counseling intern with the US Department of Defense at Fort Meade, Maryland, for a year and a half. In 2009 I worked for the state of Ohio Department of Mental Health psychotherapeutic programs at the State of Ohio State Psychiatric Hospital, in Columbus. I am currently a licensed professional counselor in the state of Ohio.
Describe your undergraduate experience. What were some of the most influential experiences on your career and life paths?
Ignatian theoretical and pedagogical goal of faith that does justice propelled me to engage in experiential learning and hands on work experiences among the Rwandan refugee communities during the 1994 genocide and participate in the study abroad community immersion experiences in the high poverty communities in the Republic of Tchad. These experiences vivified the adage I learnt from my late grandfather who always reminded me that a good life is not lived widely but deeply, and that it is not in doing things, but understanding what you do, that brings meaningful joy and satisfaction.
Describe what you might want to be doing in ten years—or even the rest of your life in terms of your work, projects, and activities.
I desire to spend the rest of my life as a student affairs professional and as a college professor—inculcating among other students and educators the passion to ever yearn to explore diverse ways of engaging with projects that empower the marginalized communities, facilitate their access to higher education, and ensure their academic success.
What type of person do you want to be? What ideals are you striving for?
I view education as a process of empowerment as well as mutual enrichment. I desire to be part of a community of scholars who endeavor to promote both compassion and social justice in higher education, especially by enhancing integral student growth and development both inside and outside the classroom.
What resources/support from faculty and other adult leaders have helped you along your life’s path?
Dr. Robert Young and Dr. Peter Mather (both at Ohio University) believed in me even when I was not sure of the career path I wanted to pursue. They nonetheless empowered me to share with them consistently and openly my transitional experiences and personal challenges as a new international graduate student at Ohio University, and that disposition enabled them not only to validate my experiences but also to creatively challenge me to explore other avenues for growth—always encouraging me to seek something greater. It pays to make oneself well known to one or two faculty members. It is an invaluable resource for personal and intellectual growth in the academy to have faculty members whom you can consider as your friends.
What obstacles have you had to overcome in your pursuit of your goals? From what sources of strength do you draw to help you overcome these obstacles?
It is very easy to short-change oneself and stop at the minimum of one’s potential because it is often the easiest way out. I had to learn to believe in myself, and giftedness. I spend alone time each day to review my experiences of the day, acknowledge opportunities for growth, cross-check it with my mentors, then apply better options for engagement with the world experiences for the days ahead.
What sorts of ways have you experienced and/or seen other students pursue meaningful goals?
Developing personal professional networks earlier on in one’s professional journey has been a major boost in my life as a doctoral student, and as a young student affairs’ professional. I have done this by way of engaging in weekly out-of-class interactions with my cohort, touching base with my faculty mentors at least once a week, attending joint conferences with my doctoral cohort, and developing a dissertation survival club. These opportunities have helped me clarify and reaffirm my research focus and well as professional goals.
What are you most passionate about in your life?
I want to college students to kindle and rekindle their passion to believe in themselves, and envision how they can make their communities a better place.
What is your favorite service learning story or experience that you can convey to readers that might give some concrete insight into what it is like to be involved in service learning projects?
Once while in Tchad, my knowledge of Arabic was zero, yet I was able to communicate with the street children by way of soccer games, laughter, swimming and fishing along Le Chari River, just outside Les Rôniers neighborhood in Sarh. Such encounters were an opportunity for me for personal and communal growth through the language of self-less love, mutuality and service. Learning French and Arabic suddenly did not matter very much. I felt content and happy spending my day creatively along Le ChariRiver with vulnerable young people who were nonetheless so full of life in spite of what one might otherwise perceive as an impoverished harsh life. I learnt to appreciate a wider understanding of human fragility and began to inculcate a greater appreciation that each life is in fact endowed with dignity in its own respect relative to many other lives. I also learnt about the connection and relationship that develop from a self-less outreach as well as the insight that a loving, active presence among the marginalized adds an invaluable stratum to the educational enterprise. Above all, I learnt that it is not so much about what I plan to accomplish during service-learning, but how a service learning participant intends to open up oneself to the possibility of experiences that scoop me out of my comfort zones, challenge me to see the world from a different perspective, and become part and parcel of a healing presence and process in a fragile world—making the lives we touch as well as our own lives ablaze with an empowering sense of hope and creative optimism.