One day in May 2015, James Gitau Mwangi was reading in the library at the American Reference Center in Nairobi when he overheard a conversation that changed his life.
The center’s assistant director, Nashon Akello, was calling for English teachers to come to a webinar and Mwangi asked if he could attend, telling Akello, “I’m an English teacher!”
Soon Mwangi was sitting with a group of Kenyan English teachers watching two American teachers give an online teleconference.
The webinar was organized by the U.S. Embassy in cooperation with VOA Learning English. Called “Writing for the Internet,” the course explained how to write factual stories in a simple style of journalism, like the stories featured on Learning English. The teachers at the webinar were invited to write a story for a contest. The winning stories would be published on VOA’s website and on the U.S. Embassy’s site.
While at the U.S. Embassy, the teachers heard about other U.S. Department of State programs. One was the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program, which is open to young teachers of English who’ve earned a college degree. The program sends foreign instructors to teach their native language and culture to American students at universities. At the same time, they learn language teaching methods that will improve their English teaching skills when they return home.
Mwangi says that although his fellow teachers were interested in the program, some were too old.
“But you need to be under 30 years, so most of my friends were like, ‘You go. Go and do it. Because it’s a great thing but we can’t do it,'” Mwangi says. “So I applied. I followed through the process — it was very hard — but I was so happy when they called me back in August, the same year.”
Mwangi says he was required to take the TOEFL, an English language test, and waited almost a year to learn whether he’d been accepted into the program.
While he waited, Mwangi went back to teaching and directing the Mavens Education & Chess Centre, a school he started with a fellow teacher, Tom Amwai.
Mwangi wrote a story about how students must deal with the terrible traffic in Nairobi and entered it into the writing contest he’d learned about at the American Reference Center. He won and his story appeared on VOA’s Learning English website.
That success inspired Mwangi to keep writing in English, although he had started with little confidence. In September 2015, Mwangi’s second story for VOA, about a teachers’ strike in Kenya, was published.
When Mwangi learned he’d received a Fulbright grant, his business partner encouraged him to go to teach in the U.S.
He is now teaching Swahili at Bennett College, a private four-year historically black liberal arts college for women located in Greensboro, North Carolina.
During his winter vacation from Bennett College, Mwangi is touring universities like Harvard University in Massachusetts. He will return to Kenya at the end of the school year in May, and plans to use his experience to improve his school.
“I want to go back with all of these things that I have and experience and just build that…I want to go back and build the school now. I hope when I go back that dream will come to life.”