Nairobi News


Kenyan-American becomes the first black person to receive Rhodes Scholar

By Hilary Kimuyu November 26th, 2019 2 min read

A Kenyan-American has become the first black person to receive the University of Connecticut’s Rhodes Scholar.

Wanjiku ‘Wawa’ Gatheru, 20, a senior majoring in Environmental Studies with minors in Global Studies and Urban and Community Studies, is among 32 people in United States elected to the American Rhodes Scholar Class of 2020 to continue postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford in England.

Gatheru, also an accomplished singer, is the daughter of two Kenyan immigrants who grew up in Pomfret.

After being selected, an elated Gatheru took to social media to thank her parents for her great accomplishment.

“Just when I think I’ve run out of tears, they just. keep. coming. I am a 2020 Rhodes Scholar. The 1st in UConn’s history and (by the looks of archives) the first Black person to receive the Rhodes, Truman, and Udall. This is unreal. Mom and Dad – I did it!!” she posted.


The university paper, UConn Today, describes the 20-year-old as a highly accomplished student leader whose academic achievements have garnered national recognition.

She told the paper that she was stunned to hear her name announced on Saturday as one of the newest Rhodes Scholars.

“It felt surreal. I still haven’t been able to shake the sense of disbelief,” she said.

The highly prestigious program counts presidents, ambassadors, business leaders, and many other prominent Americans among its alumni, and is among the world’s most selective academic programs.

Gatheru’s academic and service endeavors had been widely recognized even before the Rhodes Scholar announcement.

She was a 2019 Truman Scholar and a 2019 Udall Scholar, the first student in UConn’s history to win those illustrious honors in the same year.


She has also received several other prominent plaudits during her time as a UConn student, including the McCullough Leadership award, the University’s highest student leadership award.

Gatheru says she plans to pursue a public service career that empowers and supports culturally competent, community-based environmental solutions — particularly focusing on centering the expertise of frontline communities of color.

“The environmental movement is at a crucial crossroads. We have only 12 years to create climate policy that works to both decarbonize our economy and center equity. I want to help make that happen,” she said.

She aspires to eventually run for Congress, perhaps becoming the first black congresswoman from Connecticut’s 2nd Congressional District.

She also said that studying at Oxford represents the next step in her goal to uplift the voices of those most adversely impacted by environmental inequities.

Gatheru and her counterparts were selected from a pool of 963 applicants nominated by their colleges and universities, and who were then narrowed down to a smaller group of students who went through a rigorous interview process.

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