Portrait of Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg

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Social activist and alumna Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg '01 will deliver the 2017 Whitman College Commencement address this May.

"I am overwhelmed by the honor to speak at commencement," said Kamau-Rutenberg. "I am very excited to return 'home' to Whitman and to engage our thoughtful and committed community in conversations about the challenges and opportunities that we all-but especially the class of 2017-face as we work to build a more just, inclusive and sustainable world."

Kamau-Rutenberg is the director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), an organization that invests in African women scientists, research institutions, and the agribusiness sector by supporting the development and upscaling of those agricultural innovations with the potential to bridge the gender gap in African Agriculture.

Prior to joining AWARD, Kamau-Rutenberg founded and served as executive director of Akili Dada, an award-winning leadership incubator that provides scholarships and mentors for high-achieving young Kenyan women from under-resourced families who are passionate about driving change in their communities.  

"Wanjiru embodies many of the values of our own students," said Whitman College President Kathleen Murray. "Her career shows that there are endless possibilities for our graduates to positively impact the world."

Kamau-Rutenberg has received widespread recognition for her work empowering women. She's been honored as a Champion of Change by the Obama White House, named one of the "100 Most Influential Africans" by New African magazine, recognized as a Ford Foundation Champion of Democracy, awarded the United Nations Intercultural Innovation Award and named one of Kenya's Top 40 Women Under Age 40.

Kamau-Rutenberg also served as an assistant professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. Her academic research and teaching interests centered on African politics, gender, international relations, ethnicity and democratization, and the role of technology in social activism.

This year's commencement ceremony won't be Kamau-Rutenberg's first time back on campus. In 2009, she received the Pete Reid Award for Young Alumni, presented by the Whitman Alumni Association. She credits her time on campus for preparing her for her success today.

"In many ways I am the woman and the leader that I am because of my Whitman experience," Kamau-Rutenberg said. "At Whitman, I had the space to learn how to learn and learn how to lead."

Having Kamau-Rutenberg speak at commencement is especially meaningful for Faith Nyakundi '17, a Kenyan student who is also a scholar with Akili Dada, the organization founded by Kamau-Rutenberg. Nyakundi calls the organization the best thing that ever happened to her and says Wanjiru has been instrumental in helping get her where she is today.

"She's quite an inspiration to me and many others. Whatever she does she tries to open a door for someone else," said Nyakundi. "This is something I have learned working with her over the years and I try to embody that in every space I put myself into."  

Nyakundi will be among the graduates when Whitman College's 2017 Commencement ceremony takes place on May 21, 2017, at 11 a.m. Festivities will be held on the Memorial Building South Lawn. For more information, visit whitman.edu/commencement