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Scholarships help Kenyan pharmacy student follow chosen career path

By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs
                           Daniel Odongo

A stranger approached pharmacy student Daniel Odongo with a quick stride and a wide grin, as Daniel sat on the Horseshoe one fall afternoon.

“Are you Kenyan?” the young woman asked him. Daniel returned the smile, as the woman explained that she, too, is Kenyan and saw an article about Daniel in the MUSC campus newspaper nearly a year earlier. She had been looking for him ever since but had seen only him once before – inconveniently, while driving her car.

They asked about each other’s tribes and if they knew the only other Kenyan on campus – they both did – and then exchanged phone numbers.

After his undergraduate experiences in Atlanta and Louisville, Ky., Daniel decided that Charleston felt more like Nairobi, with both the warm weather and the welcoming people. He chose MUSC for that very reason.

“I thought, if I’m going to be working hard for these next four years, I wanted to be somewhere that reminded me of home,” Daniel said.

Each year he received scholarship money to help make that choice a reality: the Rite Aid Pharmacy Scholarship in 2010, the Dr. Alvin F. Dodds Endowed Scholarship in 2011 and the Walgreens Diversity Scholarship this year.

Daniel will graduate in May with a dual degree in pharmacy from MUSC and a master of business administration from The Citadel. He calls his past two years of graduate school the most significant leg of his life’s journey, a path he chose on his own.

The Kenyan government places high school graduates in secondary education programs based on a national exam. Students can accept their assignments or enroll elsewhere at roughly 10 times the price.

Students in Kenya take a “gap year” between high school graduation and college. Daniel spent his time figuring out where he should go next by shadowing professionals in a range of occupations: a lawyer, a pilot, a philosopher and a pharmacist.

“I think I was called to do computer engineering” after the government test, Daniel said. But he personally felt called to something else.

“I want to do something that I’m enjoying,” Daniel said. “If it’s not fun, don’t do it.”

Daniel became a U.S. citizen this fall and voted in this year’s presidential election. He plans to give back to the community that educated him but, years from now, he wants to return to Kenya to share what he has learned here.

He hopes to help his home country to develop better treatment options and patient-centered care. Take malaria, for example.

“I’ve had malaria in the past,” Daniel said. “The issue is not malaria. The issue is getting counterfeit drugs. Quality control is not the same over there.”

Daniel works a new rotation each month in various departments around MUSC as well as at the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs hospital and at the Charleston Air Force Base. He has heard wartime stories from veterans, and he has learned that a parent will stop at nothing to help her child.

He looks forward to his next assignment at the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Clinic. 

“I do like infectious disease,” Daniel said. “Coming from Kenya, I often know an infection. But it’s much nicer knowing how to treat it.”

Dr. Cathy Worrall, assistant dean for students in the College of Pharmacy, said Daniel’s personality distinguishes him in his field. Worrall worked with Daniel on the Student Professionalism Committee.

“He is just insightful,” Worrall said. “He could talk to students on a level that would really get through to them in a way that faculty members can’t. He just has a presence about him and a demeanor that is very professional. When he speaks, people listen.”

When he’s not working on his degrees, Daniel likes cooking, traveling and exercising. He is taking a swimming class now in hopes of competing in triathlons in the coming year.

A mentor put his workload in perspective for Daniel by likening it to looking for the Willis Tower in Chicago, the tallest building in the country. From 20 miles away, you can barely see it. At five miles away, it seems eye level. But a half-mile in, you can’t see the top anymore.

The point: Know what’s coming, and plan accordingly.

Or as Daniel puts it, “When it’s overwhelming, it’s distasteful. But when you make it manageable, it becomes enjoyable.

"I feel like we can all do something amazing with our lives.”