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Professor’s Kenyan ties provide cross-cultural research opportunities for Ball State students, faculty

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Students in Shivembe, Kenya, rejoice after receiving school supplies collected by Ball State University students and faculty in the Educational Psychology department.

As Ball State University students passed around packages to school children, Wilfridah Mucherah, Ph.D., saw tears in many of the students’ eyesa sharp contrast to the school children’s excitement, exhibited by bright eyes and wide, toothy smiles. It’s hard for those of us in the states to imagine kids in elementary and middle school jumping up and down, rejoicing about receiving a school uniform. But for these Kenyan children, school uniforms make all the difference in whether or not they can receive an education.

Mucherah, a professor of developmental psychology in the Educational Psychology department, was born in Shivembe, Kenya, a small village in the northwest part of the East African country. In 2000, she returned to the village to visit family, as she does annually, taking along her two young sons. She visited the village’s primary school not far from her childhood home with her 3-year-old son in tow.

“He got so excited because most of the kids were barefoot, so he took off his shoes,” Mucherah remembered. “He thought it was so fun, because he thought it was by choice, right.”

She noticed that some children remained in the village during the day, not making the 30-minute trek to school. She suspected, and confirmed with the school’s headmaster, it was because these families couldn’t afford school uniforms, a requirement to attend school in Kenya. When she returned home, she spoke with her husband about providing uniforms for the children most in need. She asked her mom to identify the children who cannot afford uniforms, not realizing the final count would total 20. Although she and her husband could not provide for all, they purchased 12 uniforms that year.

“I was so proud of what we had done,” she said. “It was such a big deal, and everyone was talking about it in the village. We are like stars, right. And it was good to see those 12 kids go to school.”

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Ball State University professor Wilfridah Mucherah, Ph.D. hands a pencil and a pen to a child at a primary school in Shivembe, Kenya.

What began as a donation of 12 uniforms by Mucherah and her husband has evolved into a cause embraced by the entire Department of Educational Psychology. Faculty, staff and students have rallied behind Mucherah, her native village and the primary school to deliver uniforms, desks and other school supplies, painkillers and more. Students formed a group called DESK, Delivering Education Supplies to Kenya, to help collect donations for the cause. Last year, the groupwith the help of matching funds faculty within the departmentcollected $4,000 to deliver more than 250 uniforms to students in both primary and secondary schools in Kenya.

A discussion in 2006 about how the department could become more engaged sparked the idea to collaborate with universities in the area. Mucherah wrote to two universitiesMoi University in Eldoret and Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology in Kakamegaand both agreed to the partnership.The agreement, signed officially in 2007, prioritizes student and faculty exchange, research collaboration and capacity building. Since then, only two groups of students took immersive learning trips because of student travel bans to the country, but faculty are still allowed to travel to Kenya.

Last summer eight Ball State faculty visited the area, providing research workshops for both universities in an effort to increase the number of doctorate degrees. Students and faculty from Moi and MMUST have also visited and attended Ball State, and Mucherah has conducted research, published and presented at conferences in partnership with Kenyan faculty. Department Chair Sharon Paulson said the cross-cultural research has enhanced literature in the field.

The benefits of the partnership extend beyond academics, Paulson said. The collaborations with the schools in Kenya have provided a better understanding of cultural diversity and enriched teaching within the department, she said.

“Such relationships are hard to build without a personal foundation,” Paulson said. “[Mucherah] opened the door to countless opportunities for both students and faculty.”

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Primary students at a school in Shivembe, Kenya, show off school supplies they received as part of an ongoing partnership with Ball State University.

The collaboration has continued to grow, beyond the department. The most-recent visit involved faculty from Telecommunications and Unified Communications to assist the universities with communication and technology. But Mucherah said that the program’s start within the Educational Psychology Department has been key to its success.

“The department has just rallied. The students are excited about it,” she said. “It is a very healthy program.”