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Full Circle: Edna Kilusu ’19

Full Circle: Edna Kilusu ’19
Story and photo by Jackie Waters
The first time Edna Kilusu ’19 saw St. Mark’s was when she arrived for her III Form year. The 24-hour trip was her first to the United States. In fact, it was her first flight out of Tanzania.

“When I first got to campus, it was so lush and green,” Edna recalls, struck by the stark contrast between Southborough, Mass. and her home in the hills of Lendikenya, located in the Monduli district of Arusha.

In this northern region of Tanzania, Edna grew up surrounded by family and close friends in a Maasai village of mud-walled bomas atop a dusty brown landscape dotted with dense bushes. Her hard-working, agricultural community raised cows, sheep, goats, and donkeys; they grew corn, wheat, and beans. Edna’s father taught her how to till the fields and harvest the crops, and her mother walked alongside her two hours each way to collect water for cooking.

Historically, most women and girls in Lendikenya do not complete primary school; however, Edna’s parents prioritized her education. For two and a half years, from grades six through eight, she attended the Orkeeswa School, three hours away from home. At Orkeeswa, Edna learned English, and through the school’s Scholars Program, earned the opportunity to attend school in the U.S.

As the first student from Tanzania to attend St. Mark’s, Edna also became the first person in her family to attend high school. This was a huge accomplishment—one that required a great deal of courage, as it meant uprooting from home and immersing herself in an unfamiliar culture.

“I came for preseason tryouts for soccer, and everyone was so different from me,” Edna remembers. “Changing classrooms was confusing, and I did not want to talk. I was afraid to speak.”

English is Edna’s third language after Maasai and Swahili, and during her first few months as a St. Marker, she was self-conscious of her accent and worried about her word choice. “Classmates did not understand me,” she says. “Teachers were patient.”

Navigating a new school is hard enough, but when everything—from the dorm rooms to the washing machines to the dining hall food—feels like a far cry from home, the culture shock can be overwhelming. At St. Mark’s, Edna felt like there were “too many options!” Slowly, she began to open up to the adults in the community, creating her own version of what she affectionately refers to as her “St. Mark’s village”—a circle of women she grew to trust, and with whom she could discuss daily challenges. This group included advisor Karen Bryant, dorm head Allyson Brown, Director of Global Citizenship Laura Appell-Warren, counselors Veronica Barila and Jennifer Taylor, and the Health Office staff led by Adria Pavletic, among many others, myself included (I was fortunate to be Edna’s St. Mark’s tutor).

The more Edna stretched herself at St. Mark’s, the more confidence she gained. In English, she painstakingly worked her way through the Odyssey, learning how to decode Homer line by line. She made the varsity basketball team, played softball and soccer, participated in strength and conditioning, and even tried crew despite not knowing how to swim. Edna looked forward to math classes with Scott Dolesh, and expanded her worldview through travel to Cuba and Ireland with James Wallace and the choir.

By the time VI Form year arrived, the once shy and soft-spoken student used her voice to educate St. Markers on the struggles she faced as “an African in America and an American in Africa.” On May 7, 2019, Edna delivered her Chapel Talk to a rapt audience.

As she recalled her early years in Tanzania—walking hours on dirt roads to get to school or to the market, gathering firewood, doing laundry by hand—it became clear to her peers that access to an education is a privilege, one not often afforded nor easily accessible to girls in Edna’s village or in many other places around the world.

“Four years ago, I made the tough decision to leave my friends, my family, my culture, and my country for St. Mark’s,” Edna shared, noting that she was the first in her community to study abroad, and that her father’s illness at the time made the decision difficult. She candidly acknowledged how setbacks (such as breaking her ankle during IV Form year) and devastating events (the death of her father, her “biggest supporter,” during V Form year) only magnified her struggles as a student.

Despite the hardship and heartbreak, Edna believes that “the good, the bad, the ups and downs” were worth it. “At St. Mark’s, I gained a sense of independence and a clear vision of who I could become,” she says. “I wouldn’t have done it without the support from this community.”

For her final VI Form Lion Term, Edna landed an internship at Partners in Health in Cambridge, Mass., co-founded by pioneering Harvard Medical School global health physician and medical anthropologist Paul Farmer. “Dr. Farmer inspired me to stay strong in the face of adversity,” she says. “I still remember his commendation for my dedication and will to learn and serve my community.”

Edna took that dedication and will with her to Gettysburg College, where she majored in psychology and anthropology and minored in writing. In 2022, Edna was accepted into the Entrepreneurial Fellowship at Gettysburg and awarded a grant to launch a nonprofit, Nasaru (“Savior” in Swahili) Designs, which provides women in her Maasai community with economic opportunities.

Nasaru has “a dual purpose,” Edna explains, “to start conversations about the importance of mental health with women in my community, and to provide these women with funding to send their daughters to school.” The circle of women meets weekly to engage in important conversations about Maasai gender roles and the impact these roles have on their mental health.

“Mental health is not something that is talked about at home,” Edna admits. She plans to change that.

Now, Edna is working as a family counselor for Youth Villages in Indianapolis, as well as a grant writer for Mutera Global Healing. Her short-term goal is to apply to graduate school for clinical social work and become certified as a LICSW (licensed independent clinical social worker), with the ultimate goal of returning to Lendikenya to establish a women’s health clinic.

“I found my voice at St. Mark’s,” Edna acknowledges. “I want to help women and girls in my community find theirs and create that space where they can feel valued.”

-Jackie Waters