Across Distance, Across Cultures
Having spent her first semester at Whitman College taking classes from her home in Nairobi, Kenya, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Stacy Wamuchii felt apprehensive traveling to a new country and embarking on her in-person college experience for the first time—especially during a pandemic. But when Wamuchii stepped off the plane in Seattle, she wasn’t a bit nervous. Clutching tightly to her list of U.S. phone numbers—which included the number of Whitman alumna Kirsten Adams Gable ’01—Wamuchii knew there was a strong support network ready to help her at a moment’s notice.
“Even when I was traveling, I wasn’t really scared about coming to college, because I felt like I already had built a community and I knew where I would get support,” says Wamuchii.
Gable and Wamuchii first connected in the summer of 2020 through a program that brought together alumni and first-year students. The program, developed in response to the need to welcome an entire class of Whitties virtually and managed by many student support services on campus, paired alumni and students based on common interests, geographic locations and more. More than 130 first-year students and 70 alumni signed up and were paired.
Gable, a biology major and environmental studies minor, has continued to be involved with the college since graduating. When the Alumni Office reached out to the alumni network to garner volunteers, she eagerly accepted. Gable and Wamuchii began chatting over video calls before classes started in August and continued their conversations throughout the fall semester.
“For Stacy, it was not just a transition to college, but a transition into a whole different culture,” Gable says. And as Wamuchii prepared to come to the U.S., their conversations shifted.
Their discussions would often begin by talking about the Whitman campus, but would veer to other relevant topics, current events and holidays happening during the fall semester. “We talked about how voting works in the United States and Stacy would share how voting works in Kenya. We had these wonderful conversations, getting to know each other.”
The periodic chats strengthened Wamuchii’s connection to her college and served as a reminder that, although thousands of miles apart, the Whitman community was her community too.
“I was able to feel like I was part of the Whitman community even when I was still in Nairobi, doing my everyday things, I would still know and be reminded: ‘Oh, I am part of the Whitman community,’” says Wamuchii.
Gable and Wamuchii were connected by their shared interests in biology and environmental studies. After Whitman, Gable worked for an environmental consulting firm. In 2003, she and her colleagues started their own firm, Sapere Consulting, which integrates organizational and digital transformation and energy solutions.
“Just being able to hear about what Kirsten does now and what school was like for her, taking biology classes and then studying abroad in Australia, it’s also prepared me toward what I want to do,” says Wamuchii. “I now know that these opportunities exist. It was a way of informing me what Whitman has to offer without directly listing everything.”
While their connection started at biology, it didn’t stop there. Throughout the fall and winter, Wamuchii and Gable talked about different student affinity groups and programs at Whitman, the first-year seminars and more. Gable encouraged Wamuchii to check out the Outdoor Program (OP), telling her that she wished she’d been more involved with the many trips and leadership opportunities it offers. Wamuchii now works in the OP’s rental shop.
Wamuchii says she appreciates the perspective that Gable has as a Whitman alumna. “I think that the best person to explain Whitman is somebody who has been to Whitman. They have an idea of their own student experience, even if it is from 20 years ago, I feel like it is still relevant and important.”
A Sense of Belonging
Prior to Wamuchii’s arrival on campus in January, Gable introduced her to another international student she mentors, senior geology major Sharon Ndayambaje, and the trio held what Wamuchii cheerfully named their “family Zoom call.”
Ndayambaje, who is from Rwanda, was eager to share tips and insights from her own experiences. Wamuchii found Ndayambaje and Gable’s advice on packing—particularly how to pack and dress for cold weather—very helpful.
“Sharon told me, ‘When it snows a lot, it will fall into your shoes, so you need tall boots.’” And when Walla Walla got multiple feet of snow this February, as Ndayambaje had predicted, Wamuchii was prepared.
Wamuchii’s connections with Ndayambaje and Gable, along with Whitman’s International Student Support Services programming—which covers everything from how to set up a bank account to getting a campus job—all contributed to her confidence and comfort as she arrived on campus to start her second semester in person.
“I was imagining one day, if all these meetings did not exist, how would I be feeling about coming to Whitman?,” Wamuchii says. “I think I would be really scared and full of fear to come to Whitman in my first few weeks. Because, often, you’re not sure what to do, but, just having the confidence that you’ve talked to people before makes you feel like you belong.”