Social justice champions honored by DePaul

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Making leaders: Graduates from a DePaul University program at Tangaza College in Nairobi, Kenya, pose with administrators from both institutions at the recent commencement. The program, offered by DePaul's School of New Learning, prepares students for leadership and management roles in ministerial and social work. This is the program's fifth graduation class, bringing the total number of graduates to 75. | Photo from DePaul University/Jennifer Girard Photography

Two Kenyan crusaders who are using dialogue and education to reform their deeply divided country were recently recognized by DePaul University with honorary doctorates for their distinguished careers and service to others.

Sister Ephigenia W. Gachiri, a renowned educator and activist who has dedicated herself to improving the lives of young women in Kenya, and Mary Getui, an established expert on the roles of religion, family and public health in Africa, received a Doctor of Humane Letters degree during a ceremony at Tangaza College in Nairobi, Kenya.

The ceremony is part of commencement activities for an undergraduate degree program offered by DePaul’s School for New Learning in partnership with Tangaza College. Twenty two students will graduate with degrees in leadership and management from the program, which is now in its fifth year. Students in the program include laypeople and religious men and women who are chosen by their communities because of their leadership potential.

Honoring DePaul’s namesake

DePaul’s president, the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., was scheduled award the degrees. Founded in 1898 in Chicago, Ill., DePaul is the largest Catholic university in the United States. Tangaza College, which is also a Catholic institution, prepares graduates for ministerial and social work.

“This year’s graduates have dedicated themselves to serving others in social service organizations and religious communities. That level of dedication honors the work of our namesake, St. Vincent de Paul, who served and cared for those that society left behind,” Holtschneider said.

In order to earn their degrees, students in the program completed advanced projects, similar to a senior thesis, and put their research into action by implementing their projects.

One of the students in this year’s graduating class plans to build homes for low-income families. He began by building homes for his own family and now has plans to build complexes of homes for families in need.

“The leadership and management program at Tangaza enables students to pursue these valuable projects by teaching them how to think strategically and how to run a nonprofit business,” Holtschneider said.

Another graduate researched cross-cultural communication as a tool for effective leadership of women religious formation programs in Africa, while another studied the effect of institutional care on the parenting styles of young mothers.

The degree program, which is designed for adult learners, was established at Tangaza College in 2006 with a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Its goal is to educate a qualified work force, build the capacity of Catholic religious congregations to carry out their missions and contribute to the revitalization of Africa.

The honorees

The two distinguished Kenyans who will receive honorary doctorates at the commencement have also contributed greatly to societal changes in Africa.

One degree will be conferred on Sister Gachiri, who joined the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as the Loreto Sisters, in 1965 with the hope of educating young women. Sister Gachiri is widely regarded for her fight against the practice of female genital mutilation. She has written four books on the subject and has spoken at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

In 1998, she launched the Termination of Female Genital Mutilation project of the Loreto Sisters. Under her leadership, the project has provided support to survivors, protection to those at risk for forced mutilation and outreach to communities that practice the ritual. She also is director of the Abundant Life Centre, which in time will conduct many of the project’s programs and workshops, preparing trainers and offering counseling services.

“Through her work, Sister Gachiri has changed perceptions and secured women’s rights, often in the face of great hostility,” said Marisa Alicea, dean of DePaul’s School for New Learning. “Her efforts to educate both men and women about the need for cultural change are transforming Kenya into a more just society.”

Sister Gachiri has a doctorate from Kenyatta University, Nairobi; an MBA in education from the University of Birmingham in the U.K.; and a bachelor’s degree in geography from the University of Calcutta, India.

Getui is the other honorary degree recipient. Guided by her faith, Getui presents a strong voice on some of the most pressing issues facing Africa, including the advancement of women and the HIV and AIDS crisis.

In 2009, Kenya’s president appointed Getui as chair of the National AIDS Control Council. Under her leadership, the council coordinated Kenya’s response to the AIDS crisis, ensuring Kenyans have access to testing, counseling and treatment, while educating them about how to prevent infection.

In recognition of her efforts, the government honored Getui as a Moran of the Burning Spear, a venerable Masai warrior title bestowed upon outstanding Kenyans.

“Dr. Getui is unrelenting in her quest for an AIDS-free Kenya, championing education and awareness and fighting stigmatizing attitudes,” Alicea said. “Through the National AIDS Control Council, she has empowered women to be advocates for their own health and has been an inspiration in our world.”

Getui has a doctorate in religious education from Kenyatta University, Nairobi; and a master’s degree in religious students and bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Nairobi. She is an adjunct professor of the Maryknoll Institute of African Studies at Tangaza College and lectures at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa.

“Sister Gachiri and Dr. Getui are outstanding women of great faith,” Alicea said. “They have been servants to the suffering and champions for the advancement of women. They embody the ideals of St. Vincent de Paul and are excellent role models for the students in our program at Tangaza College.”

The School for New Learning at DePaul University provides a distinctive approach to learning for adults, with customized programs that build upon abilities and experiences, add knowledge and develop skills to help achieve personal and professional goals. A fundamental idea behind the school is learning from experience. More information is online at www.snl.depaul.edu. Information about Tangaza College is online at tangaza.org.