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Kalo Sokoto addresses International Graduation Reception

Kalo Sokoto, Women’s & Gender Studies GTA, was asked to speak on behalf of international graduate students at the International Graduation Reception held on May 10 at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel.  Here is what she said.

When I left Kenya for Morgantown in August 2014, it was because my husband was offered a PhD position in the History department at WVU. Back home, I was privileged in many ways. I was a trauma therapist earning a very good salary and I was preparing to pursue my master’s in counselling which I could afford to pay for out of pocket. We had just gotten married and were busy navigating this new exciting life. All this is to say that life was great, and I had no desire to leave home. When I first got to West Virginia University, I was not terribly excited. I had read on its lack of diversity, how there were no hair dressers for black hair and how West Virginia was one of the poorest states in the US. A year into our stay, I was accepted into the MA counselling program and offered a GTA position at the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies.

When I started the Master’s program, I told myself I just needed to get through the program. That it was a 2 year distraction as Muoki finished his PhD. 3 years later, I now know that regardless of where life takes you, it is not to be half-heartedly lived but instead to be fully embraced. I know it’s not always easy to embrace your current reality. Like when I found myself in a classroom where insensitive statements about different cultures were constantly made as if I was not in the room. I remember walking out of the class, not understanding how I was meant to sit in a classroom where my presence evidently did not matter. This had never happened to me. It was a new experience which I had to navigate. And so I did; It was the beginning of a deeper personal understanding of the social issues that have long plagued the US. As an African from the continent, I have since appreciated the fight for justice that people of color in this country have fought from time immemorial.

Another reality that was hard to embrace was being a pregnant graduate student. I remember being 8 months pregnant at the end of the semester with final papers to hand in. It was so tough that I started telling myself how crazy I was for thinking I could hack being a graduate student and a mother at the same time! Surprisingly, my professors did not see it like that. They were all willing to work with me to see me complete my semester. I was overwhelmed by the support I received from the faculty in the Counselling program at WVU. I also remember thinking I might lose my GTA position because I wanted to breastfeed my baby exclusively. When I asked Dr. Orlikoff, the Director for WGST at the time, what would happen now that I was pregnant, she simply asked me ‘Kalo, what do you have in mind?’ I could not believe the support. My pregnancy, tough as it was, allowed me to see that I was not the only one interested in my success. That I had people around me willing to support me as I was and genuinely wanted to see me succeed; to Professor Heidi O’Toole, Dr. Ed Jacobs, Dr. Jamie Jacobs, Dr. Kasi Jackson and Dr. Orlikoff: Thank you for walking with me!

My time at WVU has also allowed me to create some of my own realities of which I am proud. As a GTA for the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies I have been the most exposed to the reality that gender impacts how one experiences the world. In my new-found love and respect for women’s experiences, I founded a project called Afree where I am collecting books by women of color from all over the world with the aim of starting an Africana Women’s Library in Kenya. The aim of this is to make books by diverse women known and accessible to the public. If at all you are down for this cause, see me after this. Another exciting reality is come this fall, I will begin my PhD in Counseling Psychology here at WVU with the aim of looking at how literature can be used to enhance the mental well-being of diverse women. This time, eager as I am for the day I will move back home for good, I am equally eager to embrace this new chapter. I want to get to know West Virginia, embrace its beauty, see what God is doing amongst its people and give of myself while I am here!

As I conclude, my MA counselling here at WVU has trained me to help clients distinguish between accurate and inaccurate thoughts. If I can leave you with two nuggets of wisdom as you transition to your next stage of life, they would be these. Don’t just wait for the good times in life; embrace every stage of life because regardless of the situation, there is always something to be gained. I say this because as much as I love my home country, my last three years have stretched me emotionally, spiritually, physically and intellectually in ways my comfort zone (Kenya) would never have. The second is there will always be people trying to remind you of how different you are; just remember that you belong. You are a citizen of this globe and you belong wherever you go. Some of my most important memories at WVU were so simple but yet rich because it validated how important it was for me to be myself even when I am in a foreign country. Some of these include me walking on campus when someone would run to me, greet me with so much joy saying the colors I'm wearing reminded them of their people and home country. Or when a client walked into my office and I see their face light up when they realize their counsellor is someone who looks like them or different like them. Or when my students hang onto every single word I say as I tell them stories from my Kenyan experiences. These only happened because I was doing me; I was belonging just the way I am. Therefore, I charge you my fellow graduates let us go out into the world and take our place wherever that may be. Let us go out into the world and make our mark and let’s do so passionately!