Teresa Wasonga and Andrew Otieno
Married professors enrich education at NIU with global lessons
It might take a village to raise a child, but for hundreds of young girls in rural Kenya, it also takes the commitment of two NIU professors who this year are honored as the 2016 Presidential Engagement Professors.
Teresa Wasonga and Andrew Otieno are a husband-and-wife team whose accomplishments include building and supporting a school for girls in a country where few young women graduate from high school and fewer still go on to college.
They do both at the Jane Adeny Memorial School (JAMS) in Muhoroni, Kenya, where academic rigor is matched by the challenges of running a self-sustaining residential academy.
And while the school is their best-known accomplishment, supporters say Wasonga and Otieno live their commitment to engagement in all other aspects of their work, both here and abroad.
A professor in the College of Education’s Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, Teresa Wasonga is known as a creator of new school leaders.
Aspiring principals and superintendents who are fortunate enough to come under her tutelage praise the powerful impact she made on their lives.
Yet Wasonga also seamlessly moves from curricular and leadership issues to the practical considerations involved in sustaining a facility where more than 100 young girls live and study. Among the issues she tackles is a dairy operation at the school, where milk provides both nutrition and a way to earn money.
“Our partnership at JAMS is focused on using an eight cow dairy to generate income and teach lessons in entrepreneurship,” writes Amanda Adare, executive director of Venture Dairy Development. “Teresa’s commitment to our partnership has allowed us to turn over management of the dairy operation to the school a year ahead of schedule. And she has used this project to further educate across the country, creating regional, national and international change.”
NIU students praise Wasonga for the way she extends the reach of her school in Kenya to augment the experiences of her students in the United States; meanwhile, the number of people and organizations that “pitch in” to keep JAMS running is nothing short of impressive.
From Rotary groups in the Chicago suburbs and an international book-sharing organization to an NIU student chapter and NIU alumni who have volunteered to teach sex education and memoir writing to the JAMS students, Wasonga is a master partnership creator.
Yet in spite of the many accolades from across the globe, students at the JAMS school call Wasonga a remarkably humble person who makes others feel important.
“No one could tell she is a professor just to look at her,” writes JAMS student Lynnet Magina. “She can wake up and clean the whole compound by herself and never tell anyone. Most of us here have no parents, no one to support us, but thanks to Professor Teresa and her generous, selfless heart, some of us are actually headed to college.”
Andrew Otieno is an internationally celebrated professor of technology.
With industry collaborations far and wide, he models successful engineering practice and engagement principles for his department and college.
Student teams under his leadership have received top honors at engineering design competitions, and he has been invited to several other countries to teach professors about the wonders of senior design projects.
At the same time, Otieno is committed to making life better for those in developing countries.
Not long after he founded the NIU chapter of Engineers Without Borders, more than a decade ago, the group tackled a clean water project at an orphanage in Honduras.
From there, Otieno and his students worked on solar lighting and heating solutions at a secondary school in Tanzania. The solar lights in particular have had a strong impact at the school, since students there can now study at night.
More than 100 NIU students have been involved in the Tanzania project, either on the design side or in actual installation work on site.
“What Dr. Otieno teaches goes beyond the realm of engineering,” writes former student Emily DeBisschop. “When we were building solar lights for the school in Tanzania, he made sure we knew that the girls have to study at night in order to pass their college entrance exams, and how those exams are ‘make-or-break’ in terms of their futures. That certainly placed a much higher value on the assignment than a typical test or senior project.”
In addition to teaching his students how to create technology for developing countries, Otieno also strives to teach them about need closer to home. He organizes an annual shoe drive each year called “A Day Without Shoes,” and uses the event to drive home messages about privilege and want.
His outreach includes the Jane Adeny Memorial School.
“As soon as we got there, he convinced us to pick up brushes and paint the school,” writes a former student. “He taught us a lot about engineering, but also he taught us that it is everyone’s responsibility to focus on the common good.”