Meet a Leader: Isabella Yallapragada

Isabella has been an Indiana student leader with Umoja for several years. She and Mandeep Dhillon led the Kenya Club at Carmel High School, and Isabella spoke at the Umoja Youth Conference for area students. This fall she begins her next chapter at Indiana University.

Here is Isabella’s reflection about her time in Kenya:

It didn’t strike me that the group would have widely different experiences in Kenya until we had reached the project area in Kisumu. I had naturally assumed that because we often traveled together, or were divided into smaller groups within the same area, that we would all experience Kenya in the same way, but I (and the three other students) was in a situation unique and independent of the adults on the trip. Not only was it my first time in Kenya, it was also my first time traveling internationally alone. I had only been involved in the partnership for a few years, and many of the students we were to meet were around my age. Collectively, these factors created feelings similar to those of a child entering the first grade: excitement, vulnerability, uncertainty. Excitement at the idea that I was traveling without my parents in a country many people could only dream of visiting, vulnerability at being in a place with customs I didn’t understand and a language I had rarely ever heard, and uncertainty in my ability to connect with the Umoja Partnership students and directors. 

I quickly realized that my fears were entirely unfounded. The kindness with which we were met was not self-serving or disingenuous– I had never before been greeted by strangers with such warmth. Every student and partnership member I came across quickly shortened the cultural gap with gratitude and curiosity and I found myself returning with the same until I considered many of these people my friends. One girl, Rose, stuck out to me in particular. We were introduced to her after GET UP had finished and the girls were running outside for lunch. Rose had been asked to stay behind to answer questions and describe the work she does as an elected member of a local student council. In no more than five minutes Rose and I were giggling over our hair textures and my descriptions of ridiculous winter clothing as if we had been schoolmates for years. 

This kind of interaction grew more frequent the more students we met. Whether a child is raised in American suburbs or Kisumu, Kenya, “Simon Says” and “Down By the Banks” elicits the same giddiness that can be found in summer camps and playgrounds across the United States. What was sobering about meeting the Umoja students wasn’t necessarily the conditions under which they live– Americans regularly see images of this kind of poverty in the media– it’s the realization that many of the students reminded me of my cousins, my childhood friends, and myself. I slowly learned to know them first as kids who enjoyed soccer, action movies, and math, rather than a child who worried about finding socks to wear to school. The knowledge of the former made the latter feel more profoundly like an injustice. 

I believe that the trip to Kenya was the single most formative experience I have had and I’m grateful to have been able to visit before beginning university. Americans have had, relative to countries in the developing world, unparalleled access to education for decades and I subconsciously thought of it as an inalienable right, rather than a privilege our society has labored for centuries to provide. Kenya is in the midst of that fight now and the opportunities and hope education has given to Kenyan students reaffirms the notion that education is the “great equalizer.” The Umoja Partnership is undoubtedly at the forefront of that fight. It has been a privilege to work with its students and directors and I pray that I’m able to continue that momentum into university.