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Photo of Sylvia Mwangi in front of a classroom chalkboard
Sylvia Mwangi. Photo by Johnny Guatto

Returning to Africa

U of T MasterCard Foundation scholar Sylvia Mwangi hopes to improve health care in Kenya

When it comes to demonstrating the transformative power of higher education, it’s hard to find a better example than Sylvia Mwangi. The amount of personal growth the industrial engineering student has experienced while at U of T may be as vast as the distance, both physical and cultural, between Canada and her native home of Kenya. “It’s been a whole change in the trajectory of my life in a very beautiful way,” she says. “By virtue of this scholarship, I can dream much more and my scope of action has been enlarged significantly.”

Improving the quality of health care in Kenya is Mwangi’s dream, and preparing for it at U of T has been enabled by a MasterCard Foundation scholarship. The program helps economically disadvantaged youths from sub-Saharan Africa access higher education so they can give back to their communities. A US$22.5-million donation from the foundation is enabling 67 African students to complete an undergraduate degree at U of T. Mwangi will be part of the first cohort of MasterCard Foundation scholars to graduate this year. She says the benefits are not only a university education, which would have otherwise been unaffordable, but a calibre of training that isn’t available back home.

Mwangi describes her academic journey as eye-opening and challenging, but overall rewarding. One thing that has stood out is the emphasis at U of T on group work. High school students in Kenya, she says, mainly complete assignments on their own, which is ironic because Kenyan society is quite communal. Life in Toronto, on the other hand, is much more individualistic – which sometimes feels isolating, she says. To integrate herself into student life at U of T, she attended  “Dinner with 12 Strangers” events offered by the alumni office; joined U of T Rotaract, a community service club; and served as a student member of the University Affairs Board.

One academic experience that has made a big impact on Mwangi was her internship last summer in Belgium at Procurafrica, a firm that supplies industrial and agricultural products to manufacturers across Africa. Mwangi also travelled to Kenya during her internship to help develop a strategy for doing business in her home country. “I got to interact with leaders in Kenya, learn about the supply chain for industrial products and gain insights to help me navigate my job search,” she says.

Mwangi has acted as a champion for the U of T MasterCard Foundation scholars by mentoring the program’s newest students. As well, since 2015, she has volunteered at the Family Room at SickKids, a second home for families with seriously ill children being treated at the hospital. That volunteering experience, combined with case studies she completed at U of T on improving health-care systems, have motivated her to advance holistic health services in Kenya. “That is what I would like to introduce back at home, where we think about all stakeholders in the health-care system and care for them all.”

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