Winter Okoth Interview
Who are you?
My name is Winter Okoth. I am Strong, Empowered and Classy African Woman from Kenya.
What do you do?
I recently graduated from Thomas More College, Class of 2012 with my baccalaureate degrees honors in Biology, Cellular & Molecular Biology Concentration and Chemistry. I am currently involved in Amyloidosis Disease & Protein Misfolding Biomedical Research at the Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Department, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine. Besides being a Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) fanatic, I am also the Founder and Executive Director of a young grassroots Mentorship initiative known as the Pamoja Kenya Mentorship Alliance (P.A.K.E.M.A) Inc., a non-profit grassroots organization that was established in July 7th 2012 as an alliance of Kenyans & Global Elites extending networking & MENTORSHIP services to young school children and youths situated in slums, urban and remote rural areas of Kenya and beyond by focusing on the empowerment, leadership, critical thinking, socio-economical, spiritual and academic growth of these future leaders. I am also associated with the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance as Associate Class of 2013. I also volunteer with other organizations as well, besides executing my responsibilities as a daughter, granddaughter, big sister, friend and a mentor, extending my community service to help bring about change to our communities and the World.
What are you passionate about?
I have big dreams for Kenya, the African continent and the World, and especially passionate about Africa and her development. I am also passionate about continuously engaging in cutting edge biomedical science & molecular medicine research to help find therapeutic strategies/cures and deeply understand the mechanisms involved in some of the diseases that are endemic in the African continent, such as malaria, tuberculosis, HIV and other cardiovascular diseases. I am passionate about the Children, Girl-child, Women and Youths’ rights’ advocacies, development and empowerment through my involvement in social & business entrepreneurship, healthcare sector, STEM empowerment among women, human rights and community development & enlightenment. Having experienced domestic violence in my family while at a younger age, I became so passionate about continuously getting involved in movements campaigning against domestic violence and abuse against women; no man is allowed at any moment to ever hit or abuse a woman, it’s neither right nor permissible at all. I am also passionate about writing, singing and poetry. I am also passionate about powers of mentorship and networking, for I believe that they are the greatest foundations to achieving successfully educated, well-rounded and critical thinkers in our societies today and tomorrow. I believe that if we continue to promulgate committed & strong mentorship to the young girls and boys, women and youths dwelling in the underprivileged areas such as slums and remote rural areas, then we shall have made a great step forward in fighting against the despicable issues facing these parties in our societies today, especially in the slums and remote rural areas where the girls are still suffering in silence and are devalued and denied of their rights as human beings, they are still victims of inequity, violence, domestic abuse, gender inequality, to name a few of the very many social injustices they go through. Overall, I am passionate about bringing about CHANGE to the World, and to see that happen I will continuously and actively Get Involved through various avenues as much as I can.
Strength refers to the quality or state of being strong; bodily or muscular power; vigor; mental power, force; moral power, firmness, courage; power by reason of influence, authority, resources, numbers, etc. What makes you strong? Tell us how it strengthens you.
That’s a very inspiring question! There are diverse array of avenues from which I derive my strength. First, I am a staunch believer in God and I have developed this wonderful relationship with the Lord. I believe in the power of consistent & sincere Prayers, Hope, Humility, and Faith knowing that God is all omnipotent and to Whom I direct all my worries and concerns; it is all by God’s love, grace, kindness and mercy that I am who I am today and I am truly humbled by God’s love! Second, I have gone through so many challenges in my life journey and I also like to challenge myself as well. The challenges I have experienced as a child, a girl, a young woman, have not only helped empower me but also instill in me the sense of ‘yes you can overcome this’, kind of attitude. I have learnt that when a problem ensues then I have to quickly and critically think of any immediate solutions to it, unless it is something beyond my control, knowing that there are always alternatives that I could utilize and having a relentless urge to succeed against all odds. Third, keeping a positive mindset matters more to me and I try as much as I can to circumvent any sorts of negativity, especially negative people who always want to bring others down no matter what. Having a positive mindset has helped instill in me integrity, courage, resilience, and the audacity to always take the bull by its horns and not allowing myself to be anyone’s doormat. Fourth, the true acts of sisterhood and women empowering fellow women. My first strongest & powerful women to inspire me are my dearest mother and grandmother; there are a lot of virtuous traits and values that I emulate from them. Were it not for my mother and grandmother’s strong support, I wouldn’t have achieved my high school education. They have always stood firm by me and I derive great pieces of advice, words of encouragement and inspiration from them as much as I do from other inspiring women leaders in my life. Last but not least, I love engaging in leadership, community service and volunteerism to help give back to the society. I have also come to realize that my sense of humor and smile makes me stronger in so many ways! It is so hard to find a day that ends without me sharing a laugh or a smile with friends, family, colleagues or even strangers!
My sense of empowerment derives from a diverse pool of avenues. First and foremost, spiritual inspiration has a huge impact on me beyond measures. I always thank God for all His mercies, grace, love and kindness; I am just so humbled by God’s deeds and promises, and I always pray that God continues using me in His works. I am always ready to march on, in whatever battled field it is, as a soldier of the Lord! Second, I derive my sense of empowerment from my mother, grandmother and all the other strong women leaders in my life. They are the giants whose shoulders I stand on and that has enabled me to see this far in life; they are a complete package of inspiration, leadership, audacity, humility, faith, hope, sisterhood, courage, resilience, intelligence, compassion, positivity, and empowerment! They continuously challenge me to be the best of my best and I constantly and ambitiously follow in their footsteps! Third, my sense of empowerment derives strongly from my Education [primary school, high school, college and beyond]. I believe that education is the greatest key to empowerment in our societies today. As a first college generation in my family, I perceive education as an empowerment bus that does not only focus on getting one the degrees but most importantly as a great tool for creating more opportunities to help benefit the society as a whole. I am grateful to Thomas More College for offering me full time scholarship for the four years I pursued my undergraduate studies; they gave me the gift of liberal arts education and it is my turn to give back to the world the knowledge I have obtained as I continuously learn more. In my African society, we are still striving so hard to help promote education among the girl-child and women. Lack of education among the girl-child and women has been majorly due to the cultural norms, gender inequality issues and poverty experienced in these regions. I will continuously advocate for the Girl-Child’s education. Fourth, my ambitious attitude triumphs it all for me. I am a Go-Getter kind of a woman and when I know what I need, I go for it relentlessly and regardless of the risks I will take to reach that goal. I am a learner and I always have great desire to learn for I believe that learning has got no end; it doesn’t discriminate on age, gender, tradition/culture, etc and it’s always a progress. Having this attitude in life has taught me, since very young age, to always Think Big and Dream Big! I am a dreamer, we all are dreamers; but it is those who are crazy enough to think they can change the World, are the ones who do to help make a difference that actually bring about the change in our communities. Fifth, I derive a lot of inspiration by getting involved and giving back to the society through acts of volunteerism, leadership, communication, networking, risk-taking, community service and developmental projects; always sending the elevator down so that it can pick up one, two, three or more other people up!
Classy refers to being elegant, stylish; having or reflecting high standards of personal behavior; admirably skillful and graceful. How important is it to maintain a sense of class in your life or field?
I think we all identify with and define ‘classy’ in different ways that suites who we are. Personally, I find being classy having unique definitions as much as I identify with. Classy does not only refer to being elegant or stylish but also encapsulated with great sense of virtuosity and by having or reflecting high standards of personal behavior and decorum such as respecting and embracing my dignity as much as I respect others’. I strongly embrace who I am and I am always comfortable Being Me. I embrace the positive aspects of my African culture. I strongly stand by the strong ethical and moral values that were inflicted in me since childhood and that I continuously acquire throughout this life journey. I am such an inquisitive and ambitious go-getter young woman who is a constant learner and I would always freely admit it if I don’t know anything and at the same time wisely utilize the skills I have learned and gifts that God has blessed me with, for the greater advancement of humanity. Maintaining strong focus in what I love doing and continuously thinking & dreaming big; having a positive outlook on things and wearing the “yes I can do this” attitude, always keeps me going. Above all, I love laughter/smiling and embracing my sense of humor. Like I shared before, it is so hard to find a day that ends without me sharing a laugh or a smile with friends, family, colleagues or strangers! Now, I find that classy!
Life is truly a journey. Are you proud of where and who you are right now? Why?
Life is truly a journey and the emblematic book in whose chapters we learn a lot and face very many experiences and encounters, as we move on. I believe that experience is the best teacher and in every new book you happen to open you must gain something new. I am forever grateful to God for His magnificent love, kindness, grace and comfort. I wouldn’t have been who I am today were it not for the omnipotent power from above and were it not for the few people who have strongly stood by me in this journey. My reminiscence stems back to the days of my childhood growing up in the remote rural areas of Kisumu Kenya and the slums of Nairobi, where I was born. We lived in stringent poverty that did not allow us to achieve most of things. I witnessed and experienced domestic violence at a very young age, due to conflicts that always erupted in my family because of my gender as a female child and it even worsen since all my siblings are females too. In my culture, the male child was given first preference to show a man’s virility which would then earn him honor and reverence in the society. Therefore, when it came to achieving the basic and important needs such as education, the girl-child’s place was always seen to be the kitchen and as a source of wealth when they are married off. Thanks to the enlightenment percolating our societies today, although this is still a battle and we hope for that day when girl-child education will be widely accepted across the African continent and the World. I always thank God for my mother’s unconditional love, care and for making the bold decision of stepping out of that abusive marriage and raising my sisters and I unconditionally. Reminiscence of the things that transpired in my family while at that tender age gave me the strength to move forward and I’m always grateful to God because we emerged the victors at the end of the day by staying strong, and empowered.
Pursuing my education was not easy due to the stringent poverty we experienced and the fact that we kept moving from one slum to another due to the domestic issues my family was facing. Having been raised and lived in the slums, I know what it feels like to go without food, having no school fees to attend school, and going through domestic abuse as my biological father kept on chasing after us, and the gender inequality and horrendous issues that the children and youths in these regions faced. It’s been quite a long journey and I thank God for His grace and love throughout it all. Many were years that life got really tough for us and especially for my mother to afford taking care of all our schooling needs, since she did not have a job most of the time and had to rely on selling second hand blouses (mitumba in Swahili), fish, and sausages in the slum neighborhoods and the open air market. Despite all these struggles and challenges, my mother worked really hard and smart to see that at least we had food on the table, clothes on our bodies, shoes on our feet and that we were also going to school. My mother values and treasures education so much; she is always be the most influential person, the first and one of the greatest mentors in my life ever!
I schooled intermittently due to lack of school fees and the necessities. I remember joining a missionary school which was stone’s throw away from where we stayed in the Huruma slum in Nairobi. The school’s mission was to help the poor children achieve education and be better people in the future. Haplessly, the school closed down while I was in the fourth grade. Therefore having no other choice, my mother sent one of my sisters and I to abide with our maternal grandmother at the village and continue with our primary school education. Living with my grandmother opened doors to many other experiences that I learnt from and also helped heighten my desire to pursue my education for I knew it would be my shield to help combat poverty in our family and community. It is so unfortunate that the Girl-Child’s education has been impaired in my society and being the first girl and fourth best student in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examination from my former primary school was a great proof to my society that the Girl-child too can make it. My great performance in the KCPE got me an admission to one of the girls’ top performing provincial high schools, Lwak Girls High School, in my province. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints I could not join the school. I remember my mother traveled overnight from the city and arrived that morning the day I was to report to the school. My mother was in tears all the time telling me that she felt so sorry because she had failed me; she tried holding fundraisers but it was not successful. I consoled my mother and I always assured her that she is my hero and it is because of her that I made it this far. My mother knows how much I love my education and she gave me the courage to make my first and most important decision ever. While some of my relatives suggested that I get married off or even start up a tailoring business in the village, this is not what I was envisioning because deeply within me was a great passion for achieving higher education and beyond. With the great support from my mother, grandmother and the very few who believed in me, I made the first decision ever in my life to join St. Gabriel’s Gagra Secondary School, a day school, which is located in the Rarieda Constituency Central Uyoma and stayed with my maternal grandma. The school is part of the Bondo district in Nyanza province, now known as Siaya County. It is a mixed day school that was about 25 minutes of speed-walk from my grandmother’s homestead where I lived and trekked to school daily. While there, I maintained an astounding academic excellence and a great passion for mathematics and biomedical sciences; making history at my former school as the first female student to ever maintained excellence in these subjects in great competition with my fellow male students during my time while at Gagra Secondary School.
At my former high school, there were so many challenges that all the students were succumbed to such as: lack of enough educational necessities, lack of electricity and at night we studied using the kerosene lanterns, candles and sometimes using the moonlight, lack of school fees but the girls were at a greater disadvantage when it came to education pursuance because of the norms that had been imposed by so many cultures, that the place of a girl-child is the kitchen and getting married-off. These practices somehow affected the Girl-child educational progress and prowess and some of them either just came to school for the sake of it and others lost HOPE in most of the subjects such as the mathematics and sciences. Therefore as one of the top performing students, and a female, during my time at Gagra, I was also actively involved with leadership and empowerment as a school prefect, tutor and a mentor to my fellow students. I also helped founded and engaged in a tiny mentorship program for my fellow female students in collaboration with some of my female teachers. The main goal was to create a comfortable environment where the girls could feel free to share talks on academics, social and health issues and how to face them. Together with the other top performing male students during my time while at Gagra, we therefore helped form small study group sessions for students who were willing to join them. These sessions were aimed at tutoring the math and sciences courses they took. These sessions, including the science club that I helped lead, were great cocoons for all the students at school. Continuous Excellence earned me index one position during the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination and as the first girl to ever attained higher university entry points during my time while at Gagra Secondary School. The Girl-child’s excellence in academics and leadership had been deemed impossible in my society but I was able against all odds to accomplish all these therefore enlightening my society. Currently, not only the number of girls at my former high school is increasing but most importantly the girls’ are continuously shining in academics and leadership performances. That makes me happy and very interested to continuously get involved in their empowerment.
I am forever grateful to Thomas More College for awarding me the full time scholarship that enabled me to achieve the very competitive liberal arts education in the World. TMC offered me a great gift of education. While in college, I was engaged in building and inspiring activities within and outside the Thomas More College community. Engaging in leadership roles since my matriculation until graduation as resident assistant, orientation assistant director and student ambassador for the Admissions and Biology department was a great way to not only boost my growth intellectually, spiritually and socially but also a way to give back to the Thomas More Community and its development. Helping fellow students achieve their goals has been my pleasure since high school and I enjoyed and valued tutoring other students in various subjects ranging from foreign language to the sciences. Being a tutor at Thomas More College had been a great endeavor and also a great way to share knowledge with fellow students. I exceptionally savor science & medically related research and by getting the opportunity to engage in undergraduate research fellowship internships at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine helped boost my knowledge and curiosity behind diseases like allergic asthma, malaria, tuberculosis, cancer and amyloidosis. Having the desire to learn more about the immunological & cellular mechanisms of these diseases enabled me to understand and engage in research to expand my knowledge to the extremity within these fields. My passion in STEM courses inspired me to participate in the Kenya high schools’ provincial science congresses and I also reached out to the community around Thomas More College by engaging in annual science fairs at the North Area Counties of Kentucky Exposition of Science (NACKES ) as volunteer judge. Being an inspiration to other upcoming young scientists and just to see how elementary and high school students engage in various wonderful hypotheses which result into great projects inspired me as well and made me appreciate the power of education and community as a whole. I also derived much inspiration by engaging in Habitat for Humanity, Thomas More College chapter, to not only help build the houses for Katrina victims but also help build hope to those communities in Lafayette LA and Okaloosa FL and I believe that with the gift of love and togetherness we can combat the ordeals that fellow humans go through. Being a resident assistant was the main highlighting leadership roles I ever engaged in while in college; it encompassed all the other roles as a mentor, a tutor and most importantly as a friend to the incoming students, especially my target group was the incoming freshman who were just starting the college life journey, and I felt really honored to help guide them through the transitioning process as a leader but more so as a mentor to them. As a result these academic and leadership engagements equipped me with the necessary skills that I keep on sharing with my communities, stretching to my Kenyan communities as well, and enabling me to engage in critical thinking on ideas or ways to help find solutions to the problems facing the developing countries, most importantly the continent of Africa, starting with Kenya. I will forever say, in Isaac Newton’s words, that “If I have seen further it is by standing in the shoulders of giants”. May God bless this journey!
If you had the opportunity to speak for the masses, what would you say?
“March on. Do not tarry….March on, and fear not the thorns, or the sharp stones on life’s path.” Kahil Gibran. These are some of the encouraging words that resonate with me more as I continue with my life journey wherever it takes me. I am happy to have shared my story, above, with you and I hope it has inspired you too to continue dreaming BIG, to never let your destitute situation define your destiny and above all, having faith in God for guidance through it all is key. My journey is just beginning and I look forward to helping contribute to the greater good for this World and especially the development of the African continent as a staunch biomedical researcher & scientist, as a social/business entrepreneur, as a young woman leader who champions in girl-child, women and youths’ empowerment. Every step counts and every act of kindness and ideas of development matters but not as much as taking the necessary actions. Now is that time that we take the necessary steps, turning these wonderful ideas into ACTIONS. Overall, in life journey there are obstacles along the way and there are times when you were either not given the chance to air out your opinions and engage in any developmental discussions or you were looked down on. I have come to meet diverse group of people with different personalities; there are those who will always want to knock you down no matter what, standing in your way to achieving your goals, those who would always take advantage of you for no reason at all, and then there are the very few who will always stand firm by you and always encouraging you and inspiring you to strive for your BEST. I would encourage you to never ever give up, whatever kind of struggle you are battling, keep marching on and keep up the fight! Here are some of the little keys that help open the biggest doors: faith, humility, patience, compassion, respect, perseverance and courage. “When life gives you lemons, make grape juice and watch the world wonder how you did it” anonymous.
At Pamoja Kenya Mentorship Alliance (P.A.K.E.M.A) Inc. we are already structuring diverse programs to help empower our targeted groups in the society. One of our first and baseline programs is known as the P.A.K.E.M.A Mentoring Club (PMC), with the main goal of engaging the primary and high school children and youths in this empowering journey by letting them also play roles in leadership and as mentors and mentees, promoting P-Mentorship. Our main goal is to have P.A.K.E.M.A Mentoring Club represented in every country across the globe. We envision enlightened, productive, peaceful, critical thinkers and well-rounded next generation of youths and leaders of our nations. This is meant to empower and let them know that the power lies deep within them and therefore ours is to help boost their light shine out. Please visit our website and reach out to us. Kindly follow us on twitter and like us on Facebook too. We look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for the support!
“And if God is for us, then who could ever stop us, and if God is with us, then what could stand against us!”
Please list webpage or blog links to be included in your highlight.
Thank you for visiting www.janethangproductions.com. Be on the look out for more sources of inspiration from The Strong, Empowered, & Classy Project each week! We are truly thankful for Winter Okoth’s participation in sharing her story with us. Be sure to visit the links listed above to learn more about Winter and her grassroots organization. Don’t forget to share Winter Okoth’s perspective of strength, empowerment, and class with your friends and family! -Always Remember to Stay Inspired! – @MsJaneThang
@MsJaneThang is actually Kristen Hayman, the founder of Jane Thang Productions, LLC. She is a Strong, Empowered & Classy young woman that writes poetry and stories that speak to the heart.