I grew up along the volatile Kerio Valley in Elgeyo Marakwet County where insecurity as a result of banditry and cattle rustling was the norm. Despite the challenges we went through, I was able to realize my childhood dream of studying in a national school when I joined Lenana School. While at Lenana School, my next dream was to work at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which inspired me to study Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources Management at Egerton University. During my undergraduate studies, I became the Secretary-General of Egerton University Model United Nations (EUMUN) where I was able to organize trips to United Nations and World Bank Offices in Nairobi.
It was during one of the trips that I secured an internship at UNEP and connected with Erasmus Mundus Alumna who was an intern at the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat). After attending one of her presentations on Erasmus Mundus Scholarship, I became determined to study for my master’s in Europe under the Erasmus Mundus Scholarship.
Immediately after completing my internship at UNEP, I completed another internship at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) where I helped co-author a chapter on ‘Overview on natural forest degradation in Kenya’ in the forest Restoration Handbook for Moist Forests in Kenya,’ published by KEFRI.
Since I had deferred my fourth year to participate in the UNEP internship, I later resumed my studies and invited the Erasmus Mundus Mundus (EMA) Africa President and the Kenya Representative to come to Egerton University to give us a talk on the Erasmus Mundus Scholarship. With their inspiration and desire to study in Europe,.
I was able to graduate with First Class Honours in Natural Resources Management. I then volunteered at KEFRI where I was able to make my contribution, including by participating in the 2011 Nakuru ASK Show where KEFRI attained the first position in the Medium Stand Government Ministry. I was able to leverage my volunteer opportunity at KEFRI to position myself strategically while applying for scholarships, including the Erasmus Mundus Scholarship.
After several unsuccessful scholarship attempts and regrets, I was awarded the Kent Law School Taught Masters Overseas Scholarship to pursue a Master’s in Law (LLM) in Environmental Law and Policy at the University of Kent in the UK. In the same year, I also received the Erasmus Mundus Scholarship to pursue an MSc in Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation for Environmental Modelling and Management (GEM MSc) in Europe. After weighing my options, I opted for the Erasmus Mundus Scholarship and declined the Kent Law School Taught Masters Overseas Scholarship. The Erasmus Mundus Scholarship was very competitive since from a total of 800+ applicants, only 15 of us were successful (1.875%), with only 3 of us from Africa, including 2 from Kenya.
The scholarship was fully funded, and my visa, flight ticket (e-ticket), and insurance were already paid for! All I needed to do was to present myself at the Embassy with all the documentation, including my passport and the scholarship package documents. I had the option of choosing my first year between Sweden and the Netherlands, but I opted for the Netherlands since the course modules were closely related to my undergraduate degree and my area of interest.
To prepare for my journey and to celebrate my success story, I organized three farewell parties at Safari Park Hotel in Nairobi, in Eldoret, and at my former primary school in Elgeyo Marakwet County where I was able to celebrate with family and friends without the need to fundraise!
During my studies in the Netherlands
The Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) at the University of Twente (UT) had already booked for me an e-ticket with the Turkish Airlines, and as a result, my first stopover was at Istanbul before I connected to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol where I was able to take a train to Enschede. Immediately after I alighted from the train, I met Kenyan students who were waiting for me and took me to the ITC International Hotel where my room was already reserved for my entire stay in the Netherlands. They then gave me a brief orientation, including how to operate the induction cooker and where to do my shopping. The following day, I participated in an orientation program at the university and was able to receive 300 Euros for my immediate needs as part of my 1000 Euros installation (establishment amount) for personal shopping since I never carried any money with me.
We also enjoyed shared self-service laundry and common kitchen where we could network and sample what others were cooking. With the self-service laundry we could wash our clothes within 60 minutes and dry them within 30 minutes.
The monthly stipend of 1000 Euros (About KES. 130,000 in the current exchange rate!) was sufficient to meet our accommodation and living expenses, including to support our loved ones back at home. The University also had in place a notebook project where we received laptops that met the required course specifications or requirements. We had small classes to allow close relationships with lecturers and fellow students, and all our lecture materials were available in our online blackboards, including the recording of some common lectures that you could listen to again and again while in your hotel room. Most of our assignments and exercises were also submitted via the online blackboard. We had the option of following the lecture material using one’s laptop or as projected by the lecturer, without the need to take notes.
The academic system in the Netherlands was very rigorous, demanding, and intensive since our classes were full-time, from 8.00am to 5.00pm, Monday to Friday, except on Wednesdays where we studied half-day and the rest of the day we went to the market for our weekly shopping (with the next market day on Saturday). In addition, we followed a module system where each course or module lasted 3 weeks, including exams, before we moved to a different course or module. This was in contrast with our semester system in Kenya. In fact, it was difficult for some students to catch up, especially if they failed to meet the pass mark of 60% in a particular module.
The most painful moment was when some students from other countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Ghana were returned home (discontinued) after failing to meet the minimum requirements – you are only allowed to re-sit twice and you should not get below 50%, otherwise, you will be discontinued from the program and your scholarship withdrawn. Luckily, no Kenyan student was sent home during my studies there, further attesting to the quality of our Kenyan education system. Our day-to-day life comprised lectures, guided practical sessions, individual and group exercises, presentations, several case studies, and regular fieldworks.
We also enjoyed delicious meals in the ITC Cafeteria where we could network with both lecturers and students, unlike in Kenya where students and lecturers have different cafeterias with limited interactions. One of my memorable experience in the Netherlands was when we visited Keukenhof or the Garden of Europe, one of the world’s largest flower gardens and considered heaven on earth, with over 7 million tulips (flowers) covering 32 hectares of land – you can view the images online or better watch the videos of Keukenhof on YouTube as a preview of what to expect when you visit Keukenhof, at least once in your lifetime.
After my studies in the Netherlands
As an Erasmus Mundus student, I completed my first year in the Netherlands and had to move to another country for my second year and thesis writing. I had four options to choose from: Lund University in Sweden, University of Southampton in the UK, University of Iceland in Iceland, and University of Warsaw in Poland. In my first year, I was the only African student in a class of 7: the other colleagues came from the Netherlands, Spain, Czech Republic, USA, Armenia, and Bangladesh. The other 8 students, including 2 Africans, had completed their first year at Lund University in Sweden. During our second-year mobility, 6 students went to the UK, 4 went to the Netherlands, 2 went to Sweden, and 2 went to Iceland. As a result, I was the only student who was left to join University of Warsaw in Poland where I enjoyed 1:1 contact and interaction with Professors and Deans of Faculties, including Economics, Law and Geography.
While studying at the University of Warsaw, I had the privilege to participate in the Global Landscapes Forum, UNFCCC’s COP 19 Conference, and Connect4Climate: Be the Movement workshop at the University of Warsaw organized by a consortium of partners, including international NGOs, the United Nations, and the World Bank. I had the opportunity to meet and interact with Kenyan delegations including Members of Parliament and Senators who came for the COP 19 conference. By studying at the University of Warsaw – one of the best Universities in Poland and Central Europe, I was able to stand on the shoulders of giants and notable alumni which included Nobel Prize Winners, 3 Prime Ministers of Israel, several Presidents, and Prime Ministers of Poland, and the 3rd President of Mali, etc.
After successful completion of my studies, I was awarded a joint degree by the University of Warsaw (with four original copies – 2 in English and 2 in Polish), a master’s degree (diploma) from the University of Twente, a joint transcript, and a diploma supplement with detailed information (9 pages) on the GEM MSc program.
My lightbulb moment came during the UNFCCC’s COP 19 Conference when I asked one of the panelists why do we negotiate on climate change yet climate change does not negotiate with us – it just strikes when we least expected! Like in Elgeyo Marakwet County we have experienced serious mudslides which have led to the loss of lives, property, and even schools.
I believe, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein. As are a result, we need to move away from climate change negotiations and embrace the conviction to act individually and collectively to address this monster or enemy of humanity which does not negotiate with us.
My biggest concern was the promise to compensate developing countries with 100 billion USD annually by developed countries from 2020 onwards to cushion themselves against the adverse impacts of climate change. My question to one of the panelists then that I never received sufficient response was: “Can we negotiate with climate change to wait for us until 2020 when we shall have received the compensation from the developed countries that bear the greatest responsibility for causing climate change? And what happens if the world leaders fail to agree on a binding agreement as they have done in the past?”
Consequently, I lost my desire to work at the UN or the World Bank because of usual rhetoric with little action on climate change and limited impact on individuals and communities. I was no longer motivated by money but impact as I wanted to impact individuals directly as opposed to the UN and the World Bank which deal mostly with governments and institutions. I also lost the desire to grow trees and embraced a new mission to be a grower of people, driven by the belief that our greatest renewable resources are not solar, wind, hydro or geothermal, but the energy, enthusiasm, and talents of our young people, “If you want to be rich for one year, grow crops. If you want to be rich for ten years, grow trees. If you want to be rich for one hundred years, grow people.” – Chinese Proverb. Since I wanted to be rich for one hundred years,
I discovered my mission and life purpose of growing people. Upon my return, I founded Harambee Philanthropy Kenya, a nonprofit organization (NGO) as a way of giving back to society individually and collectively to affect global change. Just like Robert Frost, I can confidently say, “I took the less-traveled road and it made all the difference.”
Because it was difficult to secure funding to run the NGO, a friend encouraged me to grow organically. As a result, I founded Eagle Wings Mentorship Academy to provide a foundation to support and sustain the vision I had when I founded Harambee Philanthropy Kenya. Thus, I am currently the Founder and CEO (Mentorpreneur) at Eagle Wings Mentorship Academy where my daily activities and lifetime commitment revolve around growing people, nurturing talents, and re-engineering dreams, with the ultimate goal to unveil a new civilization and set the human spirit free to dream & soar. As an ingénieur (ir) – engineer, I was no longer inspired with remote sensing and GI Science stuff after discovering my purpose to grow and build people, including future remote sensing, GIS, and environmental science professionals.
So far, I have managed to categorize my mentorship work into nurturing six types of talents: Intellectual and research talent; Entrepreneurial talent; Intrapreneurial talent; Artistic and sporting talent; Leadership talent; and Digital talent in line with the 21st Century Skills. Some of my mentees have secured highly competitive and prestigious scholarships such as Erasmus Mundus (Erasmus+) and Chevening to study in some of the leading universities such as the UCL (University College London) and the University of Manchester, etc.
I have also undertaken mentorship sessions in schools, universities, and counties such as Chuka University, Bartolimo High School in Baringo County, and Kangema Youth in Murang’a County, etc. As an active Erasmus Mundus Alumni, I have shared my experience and participated in Study in Europe events organized by the European Union in Kenya at the University of Nairobi, Kenyatta University, and Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA). I am also currently an International Partner for Kenya at the World Business Angels Investment Forum (WBAF), an affiliated partner of the G20 Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion (GPFI). In addition.
I am expecting to become the Kenya Country Manager for one of the higher education institutions in Canada where I have already initiated a partnership agreement between Egerton University and the Canadian Institution as part of giving back to my Alma Mater (Egerton University). I am also engaged at local levels as the Chairman of our family group and the Secretary of our local professional and investment group where I am able to extend my lifetime commitment as a mentor.
Within the next 3-5 years, my plans include becoming a best-selling author and a motivational speaker. I am also in the process of completing my independent PhD in Philosophy (Dr. Philos), with the possibility to complete an MBA from a top business school such as Harvard, Stanford or Oxford. This will help me to implement my vision and mission to establish a global platform for global mobility of talent and expertise in recognition of talent and expertise as the greatest global public goods to be used to serve humanity.
My advice to potential students
I believe in the 21st Century, information is a basic need while mentorship is a universal need. We often miss out on opportunities because we lack information on available opportunities or we lack guidance on how to leverage on the available opportunities. If your dream is to study in the Netherlands or any other country abroad, you should never give up on your dreams if you fail to succeed in your first or subsequent attempts.
Just know that regret is simply a redirection if you develop a growth mindset and learn from it. If well handled, a NO can lead you to Next Opportunity, which may be an even better course, scholarship, university, or country. Commitment, grit, and delayed gratification are the keys to success in any pursuit.
If you are a recent graduate with limited work experience, you can learn to suffer strategically by taking up internships and volunteer opportunities, even if it is unpaid. You will then gain useful networks, referees, work experiences, and resources to make your scholarship journey exciting. Since scholarships are very competitive, just know that there are no guarantees except when you take calculated risks (only apply to those you meet the eligibility criteria). No one is even assured of tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year, especially with COVID-19 which has greatly affected mobility programs such as Erasmus!
It’s just a matter of doing your best and letting God handle the rest. Hence, it is also important to diversify your applications to include different courses, universities, scholarships, and/or countries. Also, do not have to limit yourself to your undergraduate course since studying abroad is a perfect opportunity to transition to new fields or careers based on your work experience, passion, or future career plans. For example, my background was in the environment but I received offers in the field of law (LLM in Environmental Law and Policy) and engineering (Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation).
The Netherlands remains a great study destination with reputable universities and world-class institutions such as the University of Twente, including the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) which is ranked among the leading institutions globally in GI Science and Remote Sensing. Besides, almost 95% of Dutch speak English, hence you will not experience any difficulties with language or communication. If you already have a master’s degree, you can complete your second master’s in the Netherlands and use it as a stepping stone towards a research career or PhD in Europe or in other destinations such as Australia, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, or USA, etc.
In terms of scholarships, you can diversify your applications to include Erasmus+, Orange Knowledge Programme (OKP), World Bank Scholarships, UNESCO, Rotary, or University scholarships (school, faculty, or department), etc. I wish you success in the pursuit of your dreams, including studying in the Netherlands. Do not forget to do your research well and ask for help from some of the alumni who may have already received a scholarship since they can offer you practical tips and support with your application. It is said that 90 to 98 percent of those who apply for scholarships submit substandard applications which are less competitive!
10 Key lessons from the Dutch culture
Time management: The timetable I received before I arrived in the Netherlands was followed to the latter with precision, and no lecturer missed classes. I learned to be always on time, if not earlier.
Businesses (shops): They open between 10am and 4pm, while the open marketplace is kept very clean and orderly during non-market days (you cannot believe it is the same place!). Businesses close early because 6pm is the Dutch Dinner time, with small and intimate family. Their love for pets is at another level, including having pet seats in the car or chairs in the restaurant!
Bike: There are more bikes than cars in The Netherlands, with some very expensive – 2000+ Euros (KES. 200,000+). It is not unusual to find a professor riding a bike to class, instead of a car! There are also cycling routes for bikes, with bikes having a right of way in roundabouts.
No news is good news: If you do not hear from someone, then you can assume all is well because if there was something bad, you would have heard it (bad news travels faster).
Spatial planning: The compact cities policy in The Netherlands is well planned to include residential, industrial, agricultural, and conservation areas, etc. (with a scenic aerial view). I wish this can be adopted in Kenya to reduce wastage of land and other resources. It is also worth noting that some places in the Netherlands are below sea level with dykes used to prevent flooding.
Politics: The politics in The Netherlands are well organized, with minimal or no disruption of daily activities, including high regard for the King and the Queen. Unlike in Kenya where politicians politic from one election to another, and most of the time our politics are chaotic and disruptive in nature.
Efficiency and precision: From the train to the bus station, from healthcare to water, and from electricity to firefighting (prompt response to false fire alarm), etc. the Dutch systems are perfectly working. For example, we never experienced any blackouts in my entire stay in the Netherlands. I also remember our professors were our own drivers when we went for fieldwork, unlike in Kenya where we have designated drivers. Because of this efficiency and lack of assignments over the weekends, most students would take a train to other cities or nearby countries such as Germany.
Coffee shops: Do not make a mistake – coffee shops in The Netherlands are used mainly to sell marijuana or bhang and not usual coffee or tea (restaurants). However, those who visit the coffee shops are very organized and disciplined, and they do not misbehave. This makes The Netherlands one of the few countries with very low crime rates, which has led to the closure of some prisons due to lack of prisoners! Despite this, we enjoyed coffee breaks (real coffee) in between our classes, just to recharge our brains in the morning and afternoon.
Technology: Because of advanced technology in all sectors, including agriculture, you would find a single-family managing dairy of 200+ cows without hiring an external helper. The cows are fed and milked using automated machines, with those producing more milk receiving more amount of feed!
Critical thinking: A great emphasis of our studies was on critical thinking – do not believe whatever you read no matter who wrote it, nor whatever you hear no matter who says it… unless it agrees with your conscience. As a result, we were trained to be scientists who think and not technologists who just click – garbage in, garbage out! This is one of the takeaway lessons I will never forget.
You can read more about my ITC testimonial: https://www.itc.nl/alumni/testimonials/titus-kimutai-suter/ and GEM MSc Testimonial: https://www.gem-msc.eu/Testimonials/ .
You can also connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/irmentopreneur/ .
I look forward to connecting and growing with you as we become the change we seek in our communities and the leaders we wish we had in the world.