H.J. Heinz Fellow Brings Swahili Language and Culture to Pittsburgh

Student Spotlight
Photo of Mercy Jematia

Mercy Jematia grew up in Mossoriot, a rural town in the North Rift of Kenya. Now, she is studying Social and Comparative Analysis of Education (SCAE) at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education as an H.J. Heinz Fellow. The Global Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh awards the fellowship to students from developing countries who wish to pursue a master’s degree and have demonstrated  potential as future leaders. 

Jematia majored in Swahili at Kibabii University in Bungoma, Kenya, and received her Bachelor of Education Arts in 2017. After graduation, she taught Swahili at a boys’ school. She knew she wanted to continue to learn more about education in order to sustain the study of Swahili. She dreamed to further her studies outside of Kenya. What she was looking for in a graduate program, and what she ultimately found at Pitt Education, was the chance to “learn in a diverse classroom.” 

“Swahili should be preserved for the coming generations,” said Jematia, explaining that education in Kenya is becoming more heavily focused on English at the expense of Swahili education. 

Swahili is taught as a single subject in Kenya, Jematia explained. Jematia envisions a future where the language is instead integrated into curriculum through content-based instruction in Swahili. She thinks that content-based instruction, such as a science class conducted in Swahili, would help students learn. She plans to use the skills she is gaining at Pitt Education to develop content-based Swahili classes someday. 

A New Experience In Pittsburgh

The difference between Pittsburgh and Jematia’s hometown in Kenya are drastic. “The weather, the food, the people: it’s all completely different,” she said. Although there are strong cultural contrasts, she feels comforted by the welcoming community at Pitt. “The staff, students, everybody makes you feel like you’re at home,” she said.

Jematia has given back to her new community. As an H.J. Heinz fellow, Jematia engages with Pittsburgh students of all ages to share about her home culture and language. 

On a class visit to the Fanny Edel Falk Laboratory School, Jematia was intrigued to learn about the differences between an American classroom at Falk and her classroom experience in Kenya. She noted the emphasis on teamwork and creativity at Falk. After the class visit concluded, Jematia stayed a few extra hours to teach the elementary students some Swahili words and about African culture. “They were so excited to learn,” she said. As an H.J. Heinz fellow, Jematia plans to arrange several more class visits to teach students about her culture and language.

Jematia is also educating fellow graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh. Jematia meets with three Pitt graduate students once a week to teach them some Swahili and about African culture. One of the students is from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) and two are Pitt Education students. 

Jematia’s classmates in the SCAE program come from all around the world: Africa, Asia, and even Pittsburgh. In the Anthropology of Education class, they learn about each other's cultures. That led Jematia to develop a special friendship with Eunjoo Oh, a Global Studies Graduate Student Assistant. They exchanged stories about what it is like to live in Jematia’s home country of Kenya and Oh’s home country of South Korea. 

Jematia feels her experience at Pitt Education will equip her with the knowledge and skills to become a strong teacher. 

She first heard about Pitt through a friend in Nairobi who had spent time at the University of Pittsburgh. He said it was a nice place to live, and so Jematia took to the internet to learn more. “When I learned what Pitt offered, it went it line with what I wanted to do. I want to better my career as a teacher and an educationalist. I want to learn and understand the various research, tools, theories and practices to address problems in education systems.” 

In addition to a Master of Education degree, Jematia plans to pursue a Global Studies Certificate and an African Studies Certificate.

Jematia believes that the future of education is global.

“In the future, you will teach a class that is diverse.” Her experience in SCAE is preparing her for that future. 

Learn more

The Social and Comparative Analysis programs are currently accepting applications. Apply here.

Read more about Jematia and the other H.J. Heinz fellows.