Scholarship Recipient - Simon Okelo

Simon Okelo, recipient of a Cascadia College Foundation scholarship (right) with his aunt Penina (center) and another relative during a recent visit to Kenya. (Photo by Jason Koenig)

As you take a moment to think back on 2013  and consider what you have to be thankful for, we hope you find several good memories that inspire you. We hope they give you a sense of purpose – and a sense of hope that the world is becoming a better place. It is in this spirit that we at the Foundation wish to introduce to you a special Cascadia student and Foundation scholarship recipient. His story inspires us and reminds us of the value of the support we give - and that our future is in good hands.

Simon Okelo was born in Kenya and grew up in a slum about 200 miles northwest of Nairobi. As the eldest son in a single-parent family, Simon was responsible for the welfare of the household. He helped his mother who ran an orphanage for hundreds of children. At the age of eight he earned money by delivering milk and bread to small businesses. "While we were forced to scramble for opportunities and resources at home," Simon recalled, "outside the house we also had to fight to evade trouble and violence in the community."

Unable to read, Simon avoided school and soon found himself wandering the streets. That is, until his sister found a way to help him learn to read. "She made me collect packets of bread, milk, sugar, and toothpaste, and used them to show me how to read. I was soon reading passages in class; I became interested in math and other subjects. I continued working hard, and was admitted to the best high school in the region." To pay for school, however, Simon borrowed cars and worked as a taxi driver.

Simon completed high school and returned to his home town to help his mother run the orphanage. He also worked to support his younger siblings' education. Later he earned his way to University through a boxing scholarship. It was that experience that put him on a path to the United States ... and to Cascadia College.

Simon's goal ... that his degree would help him create sustainable solutions to problems faced by young people in the developing world, especially Africa.  "I am inspired to keep educating myself for the sake of youth in Kenya.  I believe that I can only encourage them to pursue their full potential when I am also doing the same.... together we can inspire more young people to change the world in unimaginable ways."

Simon's story is unique ... yet the importance of the assistance he receives, thanks to folks like you, is no different.  Like many other students, Simon would not be completing his dream without it.

Though this year's Annual Fund campaign has concluded - now is still a great time to consider making a gift of support ... for the students like Simon we have not had the pleasure of meeting yet.


Q & A with Simon Okelo

We got to know Simon a little better by email as he was not living in the area this quarter – though he continued his education at Cascadia on line. What follows is a collection of emails and other communication we had with Simon. Though a less typical format for one of our Student Story features, it seems right to have Simon tell you his story in his own words.

Q:  How did your path lead you to Cascadia?

A:  When I moved to Seattle in 2010, and began settling down after getting married, I realized that to sharpen my community development and business skills, I needed to get back to school. Since I was from Kenya, finding school in the US seemed challenging. A friend of mine who knew my interest in sustainability worked for a company that built parts of Cascadia's new wing, where the art and social science classes take place, she also knew that I was looking for a community college to join. That's how she pointed me towards Cascadia. I was hoping to find a small school, with a supportive staff, and great academic accolades. After visiting local community colleges, I visited Cascadia, and it was exactly the atmosphere I was looking for.

Q:  How has your experience been so far?

A:  My experience has been amazing so far. The staff has been amazing. My first English instructor inspired me so much that I gained the courage to begin submitting my articles for publishing by a number of magazines.

Q:  What do you like most?

A:  I love the learning experience the most, it's just so humbling to see that certain things just have one answer, not matter how you see them. I have really enjoyed going to a school where in one hour I can meet a Chinese, American, Korean, and Fujian. It's just colorful.

Are you working in addition to attending college?

A:  I am working and attending college. I also run One Vibe Entertainment, a non-profit organization that I started in 2008 with a mission to help youth realize their full potential,

How did you learn about the scholarship opportunity?

A:  I knew that I could not afford to pay for my college education, and one of the first things I did when I visited Cascadia's web site was to see if they could help me with the fees. When I saw that they could, I promised myself that I would graduate in a timely manner. The fee was the biggest obstacle that I imagined.

How would this year be for you if you hadn't received the support?

A:  If I did not receive the support I would not be in school today, we currently have a lot of financial constrains that would have put school in the back burner.

Q:  What do you see yourself doing in, say, five years?

A:  In five years I see myself at the final stage of my master's degree. I also see One Vibe being a well-organized institution, which meets the needs of young people, and on its way to self-reliance. I will also be a father in five years and I want my child to see the value of education when they hear about the hard work that I had to put into it.

Q:  What kind of barriers and challenges have you faced (or do you currently face) in pursuing your education and achieving your goals? What have you done to try to overcome them?

A:  The main barriers I have faced in pursuing education have been financial. While I have been lucky to acquire this support, I still have to work to pay other bills and cater for my families' needs. If I had that secured, I would focus on school a lone, and would do much better. What I am doing to overcome this barrier is to keep working hard at school and at my job. I also continue reminding myself how lucky I am because I can count the number of peers of mine that could not make it to this day. When I think about that I just work hard, and I don't even see anything as an obstacle, I see things as opportunities because I know that there is a solution somewhere. My job is to work, and the solution will come in that process.

You mentioned in your application that your dream is to "use your education to pursue your passion for community service and to inspire youth to pursue higher education." What brought you to that realization?

A:  I faced multiple challenges in life because I lacked a higher education degree.  Even though I worked for various non-profits around Africa, I felt that I could not advance beyond that. When I started One Vibe, I felt that few people were listening and supporting our ideas. I also saw that my community lacked educated people that could support our ideas, which also made it hard for young people to thrive because they also lacked role models. Other people around the world that I approached also ignored my calls because they could not understand me. That's when I realized that if I educate myself, many other issues could be solved, not only for me, but also for my community. This is because I could inspire more young people to get educated, and in the process we could change our community.

My community is currently viewed as a place where thugs are groomed, but I already see the changes that One Vibe is doing at the moment, and I know that we are not going to be identified the same way in five years. People will be able to see what we have done with the little we have, and what we can do as we continue growing, and then they will join hands with us to achieve the next goals for all of us.


Meet More Great Students and Scholarship Winners

Artur Shahnazaryan:  Cascadia College Foundation Scholarship
 Scholarship Recipient

Second year student, Artur Shahnazaryan, has seen his fair share of challenges. Moving to the U.S. as a young teenager, being separated from family and friends, learning a new language and culture, and losing both parents to illnesses would be more than most of us could handle. His story is one of perseverance. What kept him going was a passion for technology and a promise to get a college education.


As far back as he can remember, Artur's family wanted to come to America. "This country appreciates hard work and doing well," he said. "They reward you." While living in Armenia, Artur developed his passion for computers. He was the first in his class to have a computer – thanks to wonderfully supportive parents who also enrolled him in computer programming courses at the age of thirteen. A bright and focused individual, technology came easily to him.


In 2002, Artur and his mother made one of the toughest decisions anyone could be asked to make – to leave their family and home in search of better opportunities and a better life. While adjusting to living in the States, Artur kept in touch with his friends as well as his father and brother through correspondence and Skype. Artur made good friends here too, did well in school, and seemed to be on the path of reaching his family's dream.


After graduating from Juanita High School, and completing a couple quarters at Bellevue College, a friend who was attending Cascadia encouraged him to check Cascadia out. Artur enrolled at Cascadia soon after visiting the campus. Again, Artur found the friends and support he needed to help him be successful. He was on track to complete an AAS in Web Application Programming, when within a single year; he lost both parents to illnesses. Although completely devastated, he chose to keep his promise and get a college education.


Without his support system, reliable housing or income, Artur continues to focus on his education knowing his efforts will pay off. As a recipient of this year's Cascadia College Foundation scholarship, Artur maintains nearly a 4.0 cumulative GPA and continues to pursue a career in technology. He is a member of the IT club and chess club - and intends to apply to the University of Washington, Bothell to pursue a degree in Interactive Media Design. The support he receives makes his education affordable. Without it staying true to his promise would be a tremendous challenge. And Artur is thankful.


Artur is one of a dozen to receive this award this year. Many more were turned away. In fact, only one in four who applied for scholarships received an award this year. There are more students like Artur who are struggling to achieve their academic dreams. Every gift of support helps their dreams come true. Please consider making a gift of support so others in need can follow in Artur's footsteps.


Justin Gillebo:  William Christopher Scholarship

Annual Fund Student Story

Returning student, Justin Gillebo, serves as a testament to the drive and values so prevalent in our students. A soon to be first-generation college graduate, and Bothell native, Justin is fixed on improving his, his family's, and his community's future.  Coming from a family history that makes him, in his own words, a statistical anomaly to even attend college, Justin is committed to achieving his dreams. By completing an Associate in Business degree, Justin intends to transfer and complete a four year degree in business focusing on marketing and entrepreneurship. Ultimately, he plans  to "join with companies and individuals who are socially conscious ... to promote their message through advertising and marketing."


Justin has never been one to sit on the sidelines. At the age of eighteen he ran for city council – seeking to make an impact locally where he grew up, a place he knew and cared for deeply. Additionally, as one who understands the cycle of poverty first  hand, Justin wants to connect  with and bring together groups that work to help those in need and help them maximize the good they do.


However, Justin experienced a challenge beset by so many during the recent economic  crisis. After working several years as a church staff member, Justin's position was eliminated. Instead of seeking out whatever job he could land, he and his wife saw  an opportunity for him to do what he'd always wanted to do – to go to college and maximize a positive impact in his community.


So upon arriving at Cascadia, Justin was no less active - participating in clubs as well as serving on Cascadia Student Government's Services and Activities committee, a committee that establishes the budget for how the student body spends its activities funds. All the while, he maintained his commitment to his community, his wife and children, and his studies.


Justin will be completing his associate degree this year; and thanks to the support we receive from folks like you, the Foundation was in a position to support him in achieving this milestone. As this year's recipient of the William Christopher scholarship, Justin will complete the course work necessary to earn his degree – and do so without the added financial stress and distractions from the costs that come with getting an education. This investment, we are certain, will pay dividends for our community as well as for Justin and his family.


In Justin's own words, this award "provides the educational opportunity for me to secure a stable future for them and change my family legacy."