By Annie E. Schugart

Harriet W. Kariuki

Harrier Kariuki knows her way around both sides of a camera.
By Molly E. Wharton

Harriet W. Kariuki ’16 never dreamed of going to Harvard. In fact, she had never even heard of it.

Sitting in a cyber cafe in her home country of Kenya, Kariuki came across Harvard while Googling American universities. She only had two hours to decide which schools to apply to. It was her first time using a computer.

Growing up in a small village in Kenya—“you’re not going to find it in Google Maps,” she tells me. Most of Kariuki’s friends from middle school didn’t finish high school, and those who did finish proceeded to quickly get married and have kids. “People don’t go to college from my area,” she explains, let alone go to college abroad. “My whole life I knew that I’m never going to leave Kenya.”

But an opportunity arose when Kariuki was accepted to the Equity Scholars Program at Equity Bank Kenya. After graduating from high school (at age 16), she spent two years working at the bank. Near the end of her internship, she had the chance to apply to colleges outside of Kenya.

When she was accepted to Harvard, the financial aid package was a very important consideration. The $2,000 flight from Kenya to the U.S. alone, she explains, was far beyond her parents’ combined yearly income. The fact that Harvard offered to pay for both her tuition and her travel meant a lot to Kariuki. “That was a determining factor—to have someone trust you to give you all that money,” she says.

First semester of freshman year, Kariuki recalls, was a difficult adjustment. Her first paper assignment at Harvard was a 10-page paper, double-spaced. Without much experience in typing, Kariuki assumed that meant putting two spaces between each word. “It took me forever,” she recalls. When she handed in her paper, her professor explained her mistake. “I guess that was when I realized that I was very behind in everything.”

There were non-academic challenges, too. During her first trip to Annenberg, she encountered the salad bar. She took a plate of vegetables to the grill and asked the staff to fry them for her, not understanding that they were meant to be eaten raw since salads are not a typical menu item where she’s from. “That was a culture shock,” she recalls, laughing. “The whole concept of eating was different.”

After a hard semester of catching up, Kariuki hit her stride in the spring. Today, she concentrates in Government with a focus in East Asian Studies. She’s part of a number of organizations, including Harvard African Students Association, Harvard College Association for U.S.-China relations, and Eleganza.

Photography in particular has become a passion of Kariuki’s; she bought her first camera sophomore year. In a recent initiative called “Pens4dreams,” instead of payment for her photography work, Kariuki asks for school supplies donations to students in Kenya. Growing up, Kariuki’s parents could only afford to give her and her siblings five pens each at the beginning of the school year. Notebooks, too, were in short supply. Once she filled hers up, she would borrow blank pages from her friends and knit them into her books.

“Giving a kid a pen from the U.S.—it tells them that someone truly cares about them,” she explains. Kariuki complements these donations with visits to schools in Kenya, where she encourages students to apply to college. Her excitement about Harvard is contagious, and she hopes other students from Kenya can have the same transformative experience she did. “Everything that I do here, even the salad that I ate, has led me to become someone completely new, she says.”

Fifteen Most Interesting