UConn’s first Rhodes Scholar Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru says the key to her success, besides supportive parents and faculty advisors, is the scholarships she received at UConn.
Gatheru ’20 (CAHNR), an academic star and dynamic student leader, launched a project to address food insecurity at UConn and other Connecticut colleges and helped lead the environmental movement on UConn’s campus.
She says the nine scholarships—funded by donors to the UConn Foundation—she received over her four years at UConn gave her the flexibility and “gift of time” to pursue her many passions.
“It’s very clear to me that opportunities to even take on leadership at UConn can be constrained by financial issues or by having to work full time while being a full-time student,” she said. “I was able to pursue these things because I didn’t have to spend my time elsewhere.”
Gatheru served as a leader in both the Undergraduate Student Government and the Student Union Board of Governors (SUBOG) and co-chaired the 2019 University-wide metanoia.
She started working on the issue of food insecurity during her freshman year and soon thereafter co-founded the UConn Access to Food Effort (UCAFE) with Abhishek Gupta ’20 (CLAS). She conducted a survey of food insecurity on campus and helped open a pop-up food closet last spring. She also contributed to legislation that requires institutions of public higher education in Connecticut to survey students to assess food insecurity on campuses.
Her passion for public service can be traced back to her senior year of high school at Woodstock Academy, when she spent a year in Thailand on a U.S State Department fellowship.
“That year, we were youth ambassadors of the State Department, so we were interacting with diplomats and working as public servants,” she said. “That was the first time I heard the terminology ‘public service’ and ever since I’ve thought, “Of course. This makes sense.’”
Gatheru grew up in Pomfret, Conn., the daughter of Kenyan immigrants. Her mother works as a registered nurse and her father is a business owner. Her older sister, Wambui Gatheru ’17 (CLAS), also went to UConn.
Gatheru, who describes herself as a bit of an introvert, says her years at UConn helped her find her voice and emerge as a leader.
“I’m pretty quiet, honestly, and so I always felt I couldn’t be a leader and I always struggled with really finding my place. Something that I was able to get at UConn from a variety of different spheres has been the validation of my leadership, having people trust me: trusting my vision, and providing me the resources to create projects and follow through with them,” she said.
Besides being named a Rhodes Scholar, which will pay for postgraduate study at the University of Oxford in England, her national honors include being a 2019 Truman Scholar and 2019 Udall Scholar.
She is grateful for her scholarships and says donors have a direct impact on students’ lives.
“Donors have the opportunity to help alleviate a lot of the barriers that students have. And when those barriers are not present, you can really see those students begin to flourish academically, outside the classroom, and in every other facet,” she said. “Scholarships provide opportunities for students to be able to live out the best of their college experience.”
At Oxford, she plans to research ways to protect people of color from bearing the brunt of environmental pollution by making sure they have a voice in environmental decision-making.
“For instance, race is the No. 1 predictor of one’s proximity to a toxic waste facility,” she said. “That’s a form of environmental inequity. When you think of, say, the path of least resistance in terms of community power, communities that tend to be more affluent tend to have more political control and are able to harness their power more often to say ‘Hey, I don’t want this facility or pollution plant in my community.’ And the communities that don’t have those benefits aren’t able to prevent that. So, as a result, you find asthma rates of black and brown youths are much higher than, say, their white counterparts.”
Ultimately, Gatheru hopes to one day lead a large environmental nonprofit and, perhaps, run for Congress.
“In essence, I want to maintain this sense of self-accountability toward service and have that be the framework for how I live my life personally, professionally, and everything in between,” she said. “I don’t see myself not being a public servant ever.”