Sharon Tiyo is not fond of salad. “In Kenya, that’s the sort of thing we feed to our goats,” she says. Discovering different kinds of food was just one of Sharon’s many new experiences since coming to Australia to study.
Sharon is from a Masai family in a remote part of Kenya. Nairobi is a nine-hour drive from her home. Her mother is the first of four wives, and she is the eighth of nine daughters. It’s a culture where girls are often seen as less valuable than boys, and her educational aspirations may never have come to anything without the extraordinary work of Dr Kakenya Ntaiya. Having overcome many obstacles herself to obtain the education she craved, Dr Ntaiya was determined to protect other girls in rural Kenya from the challenges of poverty, disease, poor health, and sexual violence that serve as a barrier to education. She established an all-girl boarding school in the remote Masai village of Enoosaen. At Kakenya Centre for Excellence (also known as ‘Kakenya’s Dream’), 100 per cent of girls successfully finish school. Most importantly, they live free from the threats of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and child marriage.
Sharon is one of Kakenya’s success stories. She was the top girl in her year at the Kakenya Centre for Excellence, and from there, she gained entry to the prestigious Kipsigis Girls’ High School. The Kakenya team continues to mentor girls as they move through their education, and at the end of high school, Sharon was one of three girls chosen for scholarships to study in Australia, with support from Women for Change, the LBW Trust, Urbanest, UTS, UTS Insearch, and Qantas.
First stop, UTS Insearch
It was an exciting, but also rather scary time. “I was excited,” she says, “because it was my dream to study abroad, but at the same time I was super nervous. I didn’t know what it would be like to study in a foreign place.”
Her first stop was UTS Insearch, which provided full scholarships for both an English course and a Diploma of Science. She says, “I thought it would be really hard being the only black person in class, but everyone was so friendly, and it’s very multicultural. I made friends from Vietnam, from India, and many other places.”
Sharon appreciated the easy access to information, with technology that was unavailable back home. “It’s really interesting that here you can access everything online,” she says. “Things like CANVAS really make it easier. If you miss a lecture, it’s easy to catch up.”
A great transition to university
Sharon’s long-term dream is to practise dentistry and establish a medical centre in her community. She has now completed her Diploma of Science and commenced second-year in her Bachelor of Medical Science degree at UTS. UTS Insearch was a great way to transition into university in Australia. She says, “I think if I had gone directly to UTS, it would have been harder. The extra one-on-one help you get makes it a bit more like high school. And you get to learn the UTS way of doing things, so when you get there, you know what to expect. I learnt how the lab works, how to do assignments and write reports. It helped me feel really prepared for university.”
At UTS Insearch, Sharon also established a firm group of friends. “We always made sure we were in the same group, and it’s nice because two of them are now doing Medical Science with me.”
She also found a lot to enjoy about Sydney life. “I love the beaches, because there are none where I come from.” She enjoys picnics and barbeques with her friends, and taking road trips. At the same time, she often misses her home and especially being able to speak Swahili with her family and friends.
Sharon vividly remembers first meeting Kakenya when she was in the Seventh Grade. “That’s when I started understanding the importance of education,” she says. “My dream is that I will be able to influence and mentor girls back home. I would love to give back to the community that brought me up.”