The Rest is Economics: Rachel Ochako '11

Rachel Ochako

Rachel Ochako doesn’t like to talk about her adolescent years, when she was shuttled from guardian to guardian after the death of her mother. Instead, she wants to tell you how she has spent the last decade building a life that would have made her late mother proud. “Hardship teaches you a lot,” she says simply. “You learn that the only way out is to achieve as much as you can.”

Rachel understands acutely how transformative an education can be. She applied on a whim for a United World College scholarship from her middle school in Kenya, not thinking she had much chance. When she heard the unbelievable news that she would be sent to the UWC in Singapore, she was ecstatic—but also puzzled. She had no idea where the country was. It took her quite awhile to find the tiny island on a map.

Two years at the UWC, learning and growing alongside peers from all over the world, changed Rachel’s life forever. She knew she wanted more global experience and to put her knowledge to use back home. In a gap year just after UWC graduation, she returned to rural Kenya to address acute local needs. Her team led health drives, founded a library, and assisted teachers in understaffed schools.

When she decided to enroll at Middlebury College for her undergraduate education, she had the same problem locating the sliver of Vermont on a map. But more puzzling than geography was climate. Friends warned her she would die of the cold. Her first-year roommate took one look at the sweaters she had packed for the winter and called her mother. “She sent me an enormous coat, which I still wear today,” Rachel says. “People call it my tent.”

This is the kind of thing Rachel loves about Middlebury. Now in her senior year, she has experienced countless acts of generosity. And studying at a small, liberal arts college has led to unexpected discoveries. “I always knew I wanted to study development,” she says, “but I never thought I would be so interested in the environment.”

In the spring, Rachel will graduate with a degree in African studies, a major that has required course work from diverse departments, including economics, political science, and environmental studies. A semester abroad in Senegal gave her the chance to polish her French and do research on the viability of sustainable fishing.

Within her major at Middlebury, her concentration has been economics, despite her passion for environmental studies. “If you want to raise a standard of living, you first need to have a good heart,” she explains. “But the rest is mostly economics.” Rachel hopes to find work in Kenya after completing her education, despite the fact that she has no home in that country.

"I know Kenya," she says, "and I know I can make a difference there."

A summer at MIIS on a Davis UWC Scholars Fellowship has brought her closer to her goal. At the Washington, D.C., site of the Program in Development Project Management, she spent a month immersed in experiential learning alongside fellow students and working professionals. The experience gave her a deeper understanding of international development and the NGO field and concrete skills to use on the job. “The fellowship really helped me determine my professional direction,” she says.

With a passion for education and the environment, she wants to help reform the Kenyan fishing industry. Rachel acknowledges it’s an interesting twist. As a fisheries officer, her mother helped protect the natural resources of their Lake Victoria community. It took a journey around the world to follow in her mother’s footsteps.