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Nursing Student Made Journey
from Kenya to UW-Eau Claire

RELEASED: Dec. 5, 2005

Richard Mokua
Richard Mokua

EAU CLAIRE — Richard Mokua was just 13 when his father first became ill with what was determined years later to be stomach cancer. The medical crisis left his father paralyzed and his family in financial ruin.

The oldest of 10 children living in rural Kenya, Mokua decided then that he wanted to study medicine so he could help others who were suffering. He also wanted to earn enough money to support his parents and younger siblings.

More than 25 years later, Mokua is close to fulfilling his long-held dream, though in the United States rather than Kenya. The 39-year-old University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire nursing major will graduate in May 2006 and has a job offer from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

"Nursing fills a void for me," Mokua said. "I appreciate how precious life is and I believe through nursing, I will make a difference in other peoples' lives. And that's what I've wanted since I was 13 years old."

Mokua's life journey, which has taken him from Kenya to western Wisconsin, was difficult and unexpected. But he said it has made him stronger and more self-aware — traits that have helped him focus on the future rather than dwell on the past.

"There have been days when I've wondered why these things happened to my family," said Mokua, whose family lost everything when his father became too sick to work. "We had no money, no possessions and often went without meals. I thought about quitting school, but I always knew that getting an education was the only way I could really help my family. If I quit school, I could not afford to take care of everyone."

Mokua's uncle supported his ambitions and helped pay his high school fees so he could continue his studies. However, in Kenya a student's high school performance dictates what the student will study at the university.

"I did well in school but I had so much worry because of my family," Mokua said. "I did not make the grades for medical school and instead was told I'd major in food science and technology. I was disappointed but I had no choice."

During Mokua's first year of college, his father died as Mokua struggled to get him the quality medical care he needed, a difficult task since his family had no money. Feeling helpless because he could not care for his father, Mokua again longed for a chance to study medicine.

"Medicine was so deep in my heart, I knew I was not studying the right thing," Mokua said. "But you do the program you are selected for so I continued in food science."

After earning his degree, Mokua found that jobs in the food science industry were available only in urban areas, far from his family. Instead he returned home to teach high school, something he'd done part-time during his teen years. "I wanted to put my family back on its feet and I thought this was the best way to do it," he said. "I wanted to be with them."

The pay was adequate but not enough to support a family of 10, Mokua said. To increase his income, he earned an associate's degree so he'd be paid as a professional teacher. But the government told him that as a professional teacher, he had to teach wherever they placed him. He was sent to a dangerous, desolate region of Kenya near the Somali border, more than 300 miles from his family.

"It was devastating," Mokua said of the posting. "I went to that place crying. It was a very difficult environment. But I could see I was doing a good thing by helping the kids. It opened my eyes — I was poor but they were even worse off. They'd build shelters with sticks and the rain would wash it away. It was good that I was sent there because I saw extreme poverty beyond anything I could have imagined."

While living in that region, Mokua put his name in the U.S. Green Card Lottery, which grants lottery winners permanent residence and work status in America.

"I applied and then forgot about it," Mokua said of the lottery. "A short time later, I decided to leave teaching. I got a job in the food science industry and moved to the city."

Six months later, a stunned Mokua received a letter from the United States stating that he had won the Green Card Lottery.

"It was so shocking that I thought it was a hoax," Mokua said. "When I realized it was true, I had to decide if I should go or keep my new job. My friends couldn't believe I was considering not going. My mother told me not to go. Then my boss said he would hold my job for me in case I wanted to return, so that made the decision easier."

In November 1998, Mokua landed in New Jersey, where his only contact was a friend of a friend. His excitement quickly turned to despair. He found the densely populated New Jersey region overwhelming, he didn't like his job as a security guard, and he missed his family and friends. Within months he was saving money to return to Kenya.

Before he'd saved enough for his airfare home, a childhood friend who was attending UW-Stout called him and urged him to visit Wisconsin before returning to Kenya.

"I got on a bus as quickly as I could and came to Wisconsin," Mokua said. "I immediately felt comfortable here. I decided to stay and I got a job as a nurse's aide at the Dunn County Health Care Center. And in 2000, I enrolled in the food science master's program at UW-Stout."

During his second year of his master's program, tragedy again struck his family; his sister died of AIDS. Her death devastated him but made him think again about the health care field.

"I took time off from school to reflect on my life and family," Mokua said. "My earlier passion to work in the medical field was rekindled. Growing up in Africa and seeing the hunger and disease, I wanted to do something that would help people. I needed something deeper."

After exploring his options, Mokua enrolled in UW-Eau Claire's nursing program in 2003 while continuing with his master's program at UW-Stout.

"My passion for helping others in times of adversity has been inherent in me all my life," Mokua said. "I realized I could help others through nursing."

It was challenging to pursue a bachelor's degree and a master's degree concurrently at two institutions while also continuing his work at the Dunn County Health Care Center, Mokua said, noting that his days often began at 3:30 a.m. and continued far into the evening.

"The nursing faculty are very nurturing," Mokua said. "They work tirelessly to help students achieve their goals. Whenever I mentioned quitting, they convinced me to continue."

Mokua's determination paid off. Last summer, he was selected for a prestigious 10-week internship at the Mayo Clinic, an experience he said was particularly meaningful because he worked with patients who had stomach cancer, the disease that took his father's life.

"The UW-Eau Claire nursing program gave me an opportunity that I will never forget," Mokua said. "Without the experiences I've had here, I never would have been considered for the Mayo internship because they only select the best of the best. My life is now in a place that I never anticipated it could be, and it's because of this nursing program."

After he graduates, Mokua plans to return to the Mayo Clinic, where he's been offered a job in the medical-surgical unit specializing in colorectal surgery. He also hopes to continue his education and eventually conduct research relating to the impact that lifestyle and nutrition have on health.

"I believe if people are educated about healthy lifestyles we can reduce escalating health care costs," Mokua said. "I want to educate our community to adopt lifestyles that can help prevent chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and malnutrition. With my nutrition background and nursing degree, I have an opportunity to provide that education."

While Mokua builds his future in the United States, he will continue to provide for his family in Kenya, just has he has done for more than two decades, he said.

"When I left home, my family had nothing," Mokua said. "My family now has a home and many of my brothers and sisters have continued their education. When I was taking my father to the hospital just before he died, he told me he knew I would make things okay for my family. I have done what I had to do to make that be true."



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