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Streak of success after failure

Gladys Chepkirui scored 298 out of 500 marks in her KCPE exams in 2004. However, her determination and hard work saw her achieve a first-class honours in Mechanical Engineering. Her exemplary performance made the University of Oxford UK enrol her for a PhD programme having exempted her from pursuing a masters degree as is the norm

Evelyn Makena @evemake_g

Under the relenting heat of a sunny Monday afternoon, a young woman sits outside her room within the peripheries of Oxford City, United Kingdom. Gladys Chepkirui Ngetich has just completed an intense research session at the Oxford Thermofluids Institute, University of Oxford, before settling down for a Skype interview.

“It’s been a busy day,” she says in a vibrant voice. For the third year PhD student in Aerospace Engineering Science, a typical day entails attending rigorous lectures, researching and helping design better technology for Rolls Royce, a world-class engineering company, tutoring undergraduate students and taking part in her favourite extracurricular activity, athletics.

Listening to her outline how she has cruised through her day with grace and ease amidst the weighty responsibilities, one gets a sense of who she is; a young woman keen on seizing opportunities, strong-willed and industrious. For someone who scored a meagre 298 marks in her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) to now being a PhD scholar at the top university in the world immediately after her undergraduate degree, hers is a tale woven around frustration, resilience, determination and ultimately triumph.

Gladys is a native of Amalo village, Kuresoi South constituency, Nakuru county, born 27 years ago to a  stay-at-home mother and an engineer father. As a fifth born in a family of nine and the first girl, she grew up surrounded by strong male influence. A young Gladys loved participating in athletics.

Growing up as a girl among many boys unearthed a sense of stubbornness, a quality she credits for much of her success today. “At a young age, I realised that the society had suggestions on how a woman or girl ought to live her life. My mother, a strong-willed woman, taught me to follow my heart, say a firm ‘no’ to people’s opinion and stand by it,” she says. 

That innate refusal to compromise is what saw her interest gravitate towards Mathematics and Sciences, also largely stereotyped as male-oriented subjects. Getting a chance to help out her father with his work at home also spurred her interest in engineering at a tender age. Her father who worked with Kenya Pipeline would bring home a tool box and engage her when he was fixing stuff at home. Two of her elder brothers were also undertaking engineering courses and served as sources of inspiration.

Though a naturally inquisitive and bright girl, Gladys did not perform so well in her KCPE in 2004. Like most primary schools in the rural areas, pupils at Lailabei Primary School had to contend with strained facilities and walk long distances. With 298 marks, Gladys was the top student in her school. A devout Catholic, her mother was keen on having Gladys admitted in a mission school. She approached several schools to admit her daughter, but was turned down due to the low marks.

Gladys finally secured admission at Mercy Girls Secondary School, Kericho county. She recalls having a conversation with her mother and finding out that she had not passed her admission test. Nonetheless, the school headmistress, Sister Josephine Anyango gave her a chance to prove herself. Gladys did not disappoint. Her performance in Mathematics and Physics was exceptional and won her awards. By the time she sat for her KCSE in 2008, she scored an overall grade of A-.

When it came to settling for a course to pursue at the university, Gladys did not mince words about what she wanted; mechanical engineering. Just as her mother had warned her early in life, there were dissenting opinions and patronising views about her choice of course. “I was told that the course was manly and did not suit me,” she says. She pursued her passion regardless. 

After joining Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology Jkuat for Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 2010, Gladys was keen to not only excel in academics, but extracurricular activities too. Besides participating in athletics, she took up leadership roles as a class representative, and also led a group in church. The quality of being all-rounded, gave her a competitive edge when she decided to apply for Rhodes Trust scholarship in 2014. That coupled with her sterling performance in academics helped her land the scholarship to further her studies at University of Oxford in the UK. Gladys graduated in 2015 with a First Class honours and was admitted at the University of Oxford the same year.

But there was a twist. Owing to her great undergraduate results, the university considered admitting her for a PhD instead of a Masters. Out of 80 units she had 75 As and 5 Bs, which was exceptional. “I was elated and at the same time scared. I feared that I had bitten more than I could swallow,” she says.

Three years down the line, with the support of her dedicated supervisor, she has taken the challenge of a PhD research with no prior experience heads on and succeeded at it.

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