The familiar smell of damp air, drizzled rain and diesel greeted her as she stepped off the plane in Nairobi, Kenya.
It had been more than three decades since she last stood on the soils of Kenya, but Cathy Oloo still feels the same connection to the country that she developed as a child, when she lived and went to school in the region.
The graduate student at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs continues to keep her interest in East Africa as an integral part of her life and work. This past summer, Oloo returned to Kenya, where she researched basic services to improve the living conditions of an impoverished informal settlement.
Because of her work at UCLA and in Kenya, Oloo was selected as a recipient of the Senn Award for Academic Achievement and Altruism, a scholarship awarded by Senn Chemicals to applicants who show dedication and commitment to scientific discipline and serving the community.
Oloo said she’s felt connected to the people in Kenya for as long as she can remember.
Oloo’s family moved to Tanzania, directly below Kenya, as missionaries during the 1960s. Oloo went to school in Nairobi until she moved to the states when she was 7 years old.
“I (have) heard Swahili my entire life,” Oloo said. “We would always be interacting with Kenyans and Tanzanians. Students would come over to our house during Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Oloo visited Kenya again with her parents and siblings in 2009 and saw that water pollution was a big problem in the region, resparking her interest in public policy.
After she returned from Kenya, she read an article about a Luskin student’s work on flood mitigation in Senegal, which inspired her to go back to school.
Oloo enrolled in the UCLA urban and regional planning master’s program at the Luskin School of Public Affairs in 2012.
As a wife, mother of two teenage daughters and a part-time employee at UCLA, Oloo said she tries to manage her time and find a balance in her life now that she is going back to school as a full-time student.
“Cathy is a strong woman,” said Alex Oloo, Cathy Oloo’s husband, whom she met during her trip to Kenya in 2009. “She goes for whatever she wants to do and make sure that she gets it.”
Last summer, Oloo worked with the University of Nairobi on surveying and mapping basic services of urban planning, including water sanitation, electricity, education, health and security.
“Cathy has psychological and emotional association with (Kenya),” said Thomas Hinnebusch, Oloo’s father and a professor emeritus at UCLA’s department of linguistics. “She has been proud of the fact that she was born there, and it played a role in the direction to where she’s going now.”
The research may eventually serve to guide the public policies for the government of Kenya.
Although Oloo was worried at first that the internship would be physically demanding and emotionally draining, she said she fell in love with the people in Kenya and the trail of kids who would always follow her when she was around.
“The kids are unbelievably happy with their circumstances, all they wanted was to say hi to me,” Oloo said. “I would come back exhausted but invigorated every day. I was just so touched with what these people could do with how little they had.”
Oloo said the children at the informal settlements loved to greet her in English, and they were always lively and energized even when they caught a cold or had not taken a shower in days.
Oloo found out she won the Senn Award when she was working in Kenya – news that came as a delightful surprise to her, she said.
“I had my doubts about my ability to perform as well as I wanted to. But getting the award and having such great experience in Nairobi totally re-energized me.”