A group of women with dark skin and dressed in colorful dresses and headscarves dance around outside.

Davis United World College Scholar Rachel Ochako ’11 has transformed childhood hardship into a lifelong mission of opening doors for others. She is currently deputy director of international programs at Africare.

Growing Grassroots Development in Africa

“Hardship teaches you a lot,” says Rachel Ochako ’11, who was orphaned at age 13 in Kenya. “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 (UWC) scholarship from her middle school in Kenya, not thinking she had much chance. When she heard the news that she would be sent to the UWC in Singapore, she was ecstatic. Two years at the UWC, learning and growing alongside peers from all over the world, changed Rachel’s life. She knew she wanted more global experience and to put her knowledge to use back home.

Rachel came to Middlebury as a Davis United World College Scholar. Since graduating from Middlebury with a degree in international studies/African studies, Rachel has worked with communities in sub-Saharan Africa, creating opportunities for others. As deputy director of international programs at Africare, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on village-based development, she specializes in health, agriculture and food security, women’s empowerment, and humanitarian assistance.

Community development work is complex, she notes, and requires as much listening as thought and action. “You have to keep an open mind, knowing people have different thoughts, approaches, experiences. You have to accept there are some things you won’t agree with. To figure out how to make things better, you have to have a conversation. This has been very important in my career.

“I don’t always have the solutions,” she says, “and sometimes you simply can’t meet all the needs of a community. But increasing access to food for people during the dry season or convincing pregnant mothers to get health checkups and reducing infant mortality—those are the rewards.”

Middlebury’s liberal arts approach resonates in her work today. “Being able to take courses in sociology, economics, and French—that broad exposure was very important for me,” she says. I studied French and spent a year at Middlebury’s School Abroad in Senegal in West Africa, and most of the countries I work in are Francophone. Taking a macroeconomics class, while taking a class in sociology, showed me how to analyze national policy and determine how to put that in place at the local level.”

As her career develops, Rachel hopes to share her development skills and experience with other young professionals in Africa, so that people may learn from her work and improve lives in their own communities.