From a Maasai village to university life in Yorkshire

Valentine Nkoyo, who grew up in the Maasai tribe of Kenya, has just been named Yorkshire’s International Student of the Year. Paul Jeeves spoke to her.

IT WAS a meeting that proved to be far more influential than Valentine Nkoyo could ever have imagined.

Seated in front of sceptical village elders, the young woman who grew up with the famous Maasai tribe of Kenya had to justify her desire to travel to the UK to study.

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She admits that it was one of the most nerve-racking moments of her life, but her impassioned argument won over the panel of six men to allow her to begin a course at York St John University.

And the decision to allow her to seek out a new life in England has already had a profound effect on the attitudes of her fellow Kenyan villagers, with Valentine herself embarking on a project to bring English classes to the primary school where she studied.

Valentine, 27, said: “It brings a tear to my eye when I think about it. In Kenya, women are often repressed and the whole culture is centred around boys.

“But now when I go back to Kenya I sit at the same table with the same elders who I had to persuade to allow me to come to the UK, and discuss what can be done to help improve life in my village.

“There are so many things that I can bring back to Kenya from England, and gradually people have realised that.”

But the attempt to seek the approval of the village elders was the latest in a long line of hurdles that Valentine has had to overcome in her pursuit of a university education.

She grew up in a village called Eor-Enkitok, which has a population of just 1,000 and is in the Narok district about 100 miles from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

Yet the Kenyan traditional attitude that it should be boys before girls for education meant that Valentine’s schooling was piecemeal at best – and non-existent at worst.

Her father and Maasai elder, Benson Parmuat Ole Nkoyo, passed away in 2002 – only months after he had vowed to make sure his daughter finished her education.

But a chance meeting with an Irish film-maker, Séamas McSwiney, who was researching a documentary about the Maasai tribe, was to change Valentine’s life.

He was able to provide sponsorship for her schooling, alongside donations from as far afield as America, France and Germany.

Valentine said: “I wrote a poem to my father telling him why I wanted to carry on my education, and he told me that he was determined that I should.

“It was terrible when he died, such a tough time, but I was determined to keep on trying to study.

“So many people asked me why I didn’t simply get married like all of my friends had done.

“But I knew that I wanted to do something different, and that is why I was determined to finish my education.”

While she always hankered after continuing with her studies abroad, Valentine had at first considered heading to America.

But after meeting staff from York St John University during an education conference in Kenya, Valentine’s heart was set on North Yorkshire.

She was awarded a scholarship by the university to study creative writing and documentary film-making, and arrived in York at the start of 2009 for the six-month course.

Impressed by her achievements, the university then offered her a further scholarship to complete her business studies degree there.

She began the course in September 2009 and is due to finish in May.

While she admits to getting homesick and has attempted to go back to Kenya every six months, Valentine has nonetheless fallen in love with her new home.

She said: “When I first came to York, I was very confused. I didn’t have any friends here, and things are so very different to what I was used to.

“But I was constantly going to my tutors and they helped me so much – that is what impressed me so much about York St John.

“I do love York, it is a place so full of history. I love walking down by the river and going to the Minster, it is such a beautiful city and the people have been so welcoming.

“I have been to other cities, but the one thing I find about York is that the people are always so friendly.”

And she has immersed herself in university life in the city, participating in fundraising for bursaries for other students as well as working as a student ambassador and warden in charge of student accommodation and support.

Valentine has worked closely with the York St John University’s Alumni and Development Office, and paid tribute to two members, Brett Arnall and Kate Hutchings, who have helped her throughout her time in the UK.

Her commitment to her studies and York St John University has now been recognised with the accolade of the Yorkshire and Humber International Student of the Year.

She will now go forward as one of 12 regional winners to compete for the national title at an awards ceremony in London on April 13.

Valentine was picked out of entries from 1,220 students of 118 different nationalities in the contest run by the British Council that focuses on the contribution made by international students to campus life in the UK.

The two runners-up in the Yorkshire region were Michelle Kopi from Papua New Guinea, who is studying politics and conflict studies at Bradford University, and Men Heng Marian Wong from Hong Kong, who is studying social sciences at York University.

Valentine said: “I am still trying to contain my excitement, I have been getting messages of congratulations from my friends and even people like the Lord Mayor of York.

“It is a real honour, and one that I never would have thought I would have got when I arrived here in the UK.”

And her time in York has whetted Valentine’s appetite for studying even more.

Once she has completed her business studies degree, she has vowed to pursue a postgraduate course.

She has already secured a post as a research assistant in the York St John University’s Business School, working alongside the deputy dean, Diana Wetherell Terry, who she first met in Kenya.

And Valentine is due to meet today with representatives from the international development charity, International Service, to discuss an internship.

But she is most passionate about the Moi Primary Project (MPP) which she started with Mr McSwiney last September to bring English language classes to her old primary school.

Valentine said: “It is sometimes difficult to imagine how my life has turned out – I have been given so many opportunities.

“Now I want to try and give something back to my village to try and inspire more people to follow their dreams.”