Menu

Wilder School Spotlight

Meet Simon Okoth

Simon Okoth, the recently appointed director of graduate studies at the VCU Wilder School, has a message for every student that walks through his door.

“Determination wins the day.”

It’s a nearly hackneyed idea among native-born Americans but for Okoth, a Kenyan émigré who first arrived in the United States in 1977 with no contacts, no family and just $30 in his pocket, it’s more than an adage — it’s the cornerstone of his life and success. And, if the story of that life can help students to triumph over their own circumstances, well then, said Okoth, it’s a story worth sharing.

My public affairs orientation gave me the tools to talk to students but my experience as an immigrant serves as a bridge. When I tell students that they can achieve their goals, regardless of their economic or academic background, they believe, because my story is the embodiment of that idea. My aim for every student that enters my office is that he or she leave fully encouraged about what is possible.

– Simon Okoth

“My public affairs orientation gave me the tools to talk to students but my experience as an immigrant serves as a bridge. When I tell students that they can achieve their goals, regardless of their economic or academic background, they believe, because my story is the embodiment of that idea. My aim for every student that enters my office is that he or she leave fully encouraged about what is possible.”

Okoth’s journey began in a rural community outside of Kisumu, a small port city in western Kenya. As an ambitious and inquisitive 15 year-old, Okoth said he got the idea to study in America while riffling through a relative’s old suitcase. By happenstance, the case contained a tattered, decades-old old brochure from Berea College, a small liberal arts institution in Kentucky, which would ignite Okoth’s imagination and prove serendipitous.

“Although I had no idea of its mission at the time, Berea College is unique among U.S. colleges, because it charges no tuition. Located in the heart of Appalachia, Berea evolved out of a mission to serve the region’s poor. To this day, every admitted student there is provided with the equivalent of a four-year, full-tuition scholarship.”

For Okoth—the son of modest farmers who lacked the funds to support a flight to the U.S., let alone tuition—admission to Berea would mark the start of a life filled with profoundly different choices as well as an impressive career that would include appointments in various countries and span three continents.

Okoth went on to earn a bachelor’s in economics from Berea College and a master’s in public administration from Murray State University. Upon completion of his studies, he returned to Kenya where he began a 30-year career working in public affairs, first as a planning officer in Kenya’s Ministry of Education and later as a cultural affairs assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. At the embassy, Okoth was responsible for developing U.S. public policy diplomacy initiatives designed to foster exchange between the U.S. and Kenya at political, academic and institutional levels and was even elected chief representative of the embassy’s 638 employees. He went on to serve as the associate country director for the U.S. Peace Corps.

Despite a rich professional life in his homeland, Okoth began to devote himself to yet another cause, which he pursued part-time: improving access to clean water and sanitation. The genocide of thousands of Rwandans in 1994 and the subsequent dumping of thousands of bodies into Lake Victoria prompted a state of emergency in several bordering countries, including Okoth’s native Kenya where many—including Okoth’s own mother—remained dangerously uneducated about the risks of consuming raw water. In 1995, he launched a non-profit designed to teach local communities how to access and conserve clean water called the Clean Water Initiative.

It was his growing interest in affecting water safety and conservation that led Okoth to pursue a doctorate in public administration at the VCU Wilder School.

“I came to VCU to impact change and bring awareness to the important issue of clean water and water rights. What I also discovered was the joy of research, the camaraderie of scholarship and the thrill of teaching. As a graduate assistant I had the opportunity to witness and be critiqued by exceptional mentors like Richard Huff, David Farmer and Susan Gooden. These faculty mentors helped me to find my stride as a scholar, as a teacher and as an adviser.

Okoth went on to earn a Ph.D. from VCU in 2009 and spent the next several years teaching at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul and King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Prior to returning to the university, he served as an assistant professor and coordinator of the Executive Masters in Public Administration program at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.

In June, Okoth was appointed director of graduate studies at the VCU Wilder School where he is responsible for providing administrative leadership to the office responsible for managing the school’s masters, post-baccalaureate and post-masters certificates and Ph.D. graduate programs. He said his initial goals are to provide more in-service training to faculty and staff involved in the administration of the school’s ever-changing policies and guidelines and to develop new partnerships and international exchange opportunities for faculty and students.

“I am honored and humbled to be back at a place that has given me so much—both personally and professionally. I look forward to enriching the lives and careers of our students.”