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From an African slum to Wesleyan University

Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner, both graduates from Wesleyan University, built the first free school for girls in Kibera, Africa's largest slum.

By Amber Payne
NBC News 

When I first spoke to Kennedy Odede over the phone, I suggested we conduct his in-person interview at the place on his college campus most significant to him.  

“How about Usdan Marketplace?” he asked, referring to one of the popular lunch spots at the Middletown, Conn., school.   

I was a bit confused, and frankly, the aesthetics and the difficulties of getting quality audio in a cacophonous dining hall concerned me. 

But Odede, 27, went on to explain.  When he first arrived at Wesleyan University in fall of 2008, he would literally run to the dining hall because he wanted to get there before the food disappeared. He didn't realize that for the first time in his life, there would always be enough for him to eat. 

Odede grew up in Kibera, a slum in Kenya where more than one million people live in an area the size of New York City's Central Park without sewage systems, roads, or access to basic health care and education. 

And on Sunday, May 27th, he stood proudly before his graduating class with honors, and gave the commencement address.  He became the first person from Africa’s largest slum to graduate from an American University. 

For the young man who had never seen a shower until he came to the U.S., it was a life-altering four years. Now, he is determined to use his education and his passion to change the lives of those in his hometown.  

“I know millions of people who are struggling,” he said.  “It is not that they are lazy or they can’t do it.  It’s that there’s no opportunity.  I want to be a symbol that anyone in the world, given an opportunity, can make it.” 

'Dare to hope'

Hope is the theme has guided Odede.  His mission that bright afternoon in May was to light a fire for social change among his peers.  He shared some of his inspiring journey: how he came from being a poor factory worker to standing before them as a Wesleyan graduate.   

And he left them with his mantra: “When you dare to hope, we create more hope in the world."   

Odede's scarlet cap and gown contrasted beautifully against the bright blue sky as he confidently commanded the attention of his class, and their friends, family, and faculty. 

Kennedy Odede grew up in the Kibera slum in Africa, and never thought he could graduate from Wesleyan University – let alone graduate with honors.

“Please repeat after me,” he said. "Today I promise ... to use my education ... to champion hope."

All 713 of his fellow undergraduates enthusiastically reiterated his charge.

When Odede was growing up, he dreamed of becoming a teacher or a doctor.  His mother, he said, gently told him not to get his hopes up too high.  He vividly remembered the day his mother tried to enroll him in primary school but could not afford the $10-a-year tuition. 

But hope truly is what brought Kennedy to Wesleyan.  He was talented and driven enough to receive a scholarship from the university with the help of a young woman who shared his passion to help others. 

Shining Hope for Communities

"Nightly News" first introduced viewers to Kennedy Odede and Wesleyan grad Jessica Posner in our Making a Difference series.  

Together they founded Shining Hope for Communities in the slum Odede grew up in. 

“We believe that if people have hope and they have access to resources, there are so many amazing things they can do to change their realities,” Posner said. 

During Odede’s first year at Wesleyan where he attended on a full scholarship, he and Posner were awarded a $10,000 grant to build a small school for girls in Kibera as an educational institution and a safe haven for girls. They built the school in the summer of 2009 and Posner, a 2009 graduate, has been living in Kibera heading the organization while Odede finished school. 

Since its founding, the school and the organization as a whole has grown tremendously.  In addition to securing nearly $1 million in grants, they built a health clinic and clean water and latrine station, and two community centers with youth and adult literacy programs -- community services that will help more than 30,000 people this year.

Love at first bus stop

Odede and Posner met in 2008 at a bus stop in Nairobi.  Posner was a junior studying abroad and when she learned of Odede’s community work, she was inspired to join him. 

Posner fondly called it “love at first bus stop.”  They married on Saturday in Denver. Posner was thrilled to show us her ring and she described the ceremony as a mix of Kenyan and Jewish traditions.

They will both return to Kibera this summer to build a life together and to continue to build their organization.

 “We both come from different worlds.  We compliment each other,” Odede explained.  “And that’s why we are a really, really powerful force.” 

A special day for the family and the community

Odede's younger sister Elizabeth Odede, his 7-year-old brother Hillary Odede, and his best friend, traveled to Wesleyan to join the graduation festivities. While young Hillary inspected our camera Elizabeth was so overcome with pride for her big brother, she could barely form words when I asked her how she felt.  

Odede’s mother was unable to attend commencement, but she sent him a text, congratulating him on following his dream to attend university: “It is the best day of your life as you graduate.  We wish you the best and we are thinking of you.  This is a really special day for the family and the community!”

Odede graduates with a degree in sociology, but he told us and his fellow graduates that the momentous day was not for him only.  

“My dream is to attend a Wesleyan commencement 13 years from now and sit where our families are today to watch a graduate from the Kibera School for Girls accept a Wesleyan diploma,” he said.  “Proving that it does not matter where you come from, only where you want to go.”