Fate, or some variation of it, has been a major part of Cathy Oloo’s life.
It’s what has shuttled her between California and Kenya. It’s what brought her to the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. It’s what helped her earn a prestigious scholarship, the only American — and one of just three people worldwide — to be awarded a generous gift.
And, it’s what ties all of these things together in her life.
Oloo has always had ties to UCLA. Her father, Tom Hinnebusch, has studied and taught Swahili and linguistics on campus since 1968.
Oloo also has ties to Kenya since her father did his dissertation research there in the early 1970s. After all, Cathy was born in Nairobi, lived in Tanzania until she was two years old and then attended first grade and Kindergarten in Kenya.
Yet her ties to UCLA and Kenya aren’t limited to these unique experiences.
Oloo has been working full-time at UCLA for 14 years, spending almost the last dozen in Corporate Accounting. Because she is a campus employee she routinely gets emails with the top stories from around the university. One struck her and sat with her. It was a story of UCLA Luskin student John Scott-Railton — who is now earning his Ph.D. at UCLA Luskin — and his work with flood mitigation in Senegal.
“I thought ‘Oh my God, students are doing that kind of work here?’” Oloo said. “I started looking at degrees and what they can do.”
That thought occurred not long after she had gone back to Kenya on a 2009 visit and seen an abundance of contaminated water. Oloo continued to receive a first-hand view of the problem, even though she continued to visit Nairobi for other reasons — she had fallen in love.
During her 2009 trip she had made a connection with her now-husband, Alex, and during subsequent visits she would see how bad some areas’ water supplies would be. Although she wasn’t enrolled at Luskin yet nor was devoted to studying water at the time — after all, she was making visits to make sure a someone nearly 10,000 miles away was true love — what she saw convinced her to undertake the task of earning her master’s degree in Urban Planning.
Eventually Alex moved to Los Angeles, and he and Cathy were married two days after he touched down, in April 2011. Even with a full-time job, as a new wife, and mother of two teenage girls, Oloo enrolled at UCLA Luskin with the words of her new husband repeating like a drumbeat in her mind — “America is the land of opportunity. I am going to take advantage of every opportunity I can,” Alex said.
After completing her first year as an Urban Planning student, she returned to Kenya as a summer intern. With a generous fellowship from Jim and Judy Bergman, Oloo worked with the University of Nairobi mapping informal settlements with geographic information system (GIS) technology. Her role this summer was to research service provisions — water, sanitation, electricity, etc. — in certain sections of informal settlements. This revolutionary work had never been done, and it gave the city new information it could use in its planning activities.
Shortly before she returned to the U.S., Oloo received word that she had been selected to receive the Senn Award, one of just three people worldwide recognized for “Making A Difference,” as the award indicates. In late August she went to Zurich, Switzerland, to receive the award along with a student from the United Kingdom and a student from Turkey.
“The trip to Zurich and the Senn Award celebration could not have been a more extreme opposite to my summer in Nairobi,” Oloo said. “The people at Senn and their corporate partners were very welcoming, enthusiastic about our work, and so interested in our projects and future endeavors. Almost all of the attendees are chemists, patent holders for peptide synthesis, and one speaker is a Nobel Laureate in chemistry. All of these brilliant people were thrilled about what the three award recipients are doing and very supportive of Senn’s aim to recognize humanitarian activities.”
After a whirlwind first year as a graduate student, full-time employee and full-time wife and mom, Oloo describes 2012-13 as “very, very difficult. It was kind of a struggle.”
“This trip [to Kenya] was physically demanding,” said Oloo, who blogged about her work in Kenya. “I was scared and really nervous I wasn’t going to be able to handle it. At the end of the trip a professor said ‘I didn’t think you were going to be able to cut it. You are one tough woman.’
“I had doubts about my ability to do this. But after my trip I have no reason to be held back. I am going to keep going and I feel re-energized.”
Ultimately Oloo hopes to use her UCLA Luskin degree to work for a large non-governmental organization working with water and sanitation in a rural or urban environment. With her eldest daughter in college and her younger daughter's high school graduation on the horizon, who knows?
Perhaps she’ll wind up back in Kenya. Or she’ll continue her work in Los Angeles. You never know with fate — it just has a way of working out.
Connect with us! The UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs is on Facebook and Twitter and it’s the best and easiest way to find out what’s happening – and what’s trending – at all times. Plus, it’s the best way to find out how to receive cool Luskin gear and the latest news and info. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.