Growing up in Kenya, Robel Ng’ong’a understood two things early on: the importance of being kind and the privilege of having an education.
His parents, despite humble rural upbringings, managed to earn master’s degrees thanks to support from their family, peers and community — support they paid forward by helping others through charitable work.
That life lesson in caring guided his own student career at the University of Alberta over the past four years — and it’s a philosophy he plans to live by after he graduates from Augustana Campus June 4.
“As an individual, I like to see people happy, to put smiles on their faces,” he says. “The world is a better place when we are smiling.”
Ng’ong’a, who earned a bachelor of management and a certificate in innovation and entrepreneurship from the U of A, was initially attracted to the U of A because of its high global rankings, availability of undergraduate student funding and opportunities for undergraduate research.
But he credits the nurturing environment of Augustana for giving him a strong head start in his life goal to help others as he gained his own education.
“It’s a very close-knit community where we all feel like family, and the fact that almost everyone here is willing to go the extra mile for one another is what cultivated the urge to give back,” he says.
“I’ve met amazing peers, faculty members and staff who all provided me with useful perspectives on how to approach life and to make the world a better place.”
Being of service on campus and off
While studying for his degree, Ng’ong’a began serving with the Augustana Students’ Association in 2019, becoming its president in 2021.
When the COVID pandemic hit, Ng’ong’a sought ways to help his fellow students navigate the turbulence.
With the sudden shift from classroom studies to online learning, he advocated for flexible teaching methods and exam policies. He also sourced and shared free masks, and organized safe social gatherings online and in person.
More recently, he helped fellow students struggling with the effects of inflation.
“It was heartbreaking,” he recalls. “They would tell me that they had to pick between having a meal and buying a textbook, or work extra hours to pay rent and buy a book.”
In response, Ng’ong’a helped initiate the U of A’s zero textbook cost initiative on Augustana Campus, saving students an estimated $331,000. He also created policies to grow Augustana’s Food Pantry, which provided about 20 hampers a month to students.
It was rewarding to help provide some relief to his peers during a difficult time, he says.
“You could see their focus was no longer on ‘How am I going to survive?’ but ‘How am I going to make the most out of my education?’”
The experience also “energized me to keep going,” Ng’ong’a adds. “There is always one more person I can help.”
Off campus, Ng’ong’a became a member of the committee advising the City of Camrose on its municipal development plan, bringing a perspective of equity, diversity and inclusion to the community’s plans for the future.
As the only Black committee member, Ng’ong’a focused on building inclusivity, advocating for local job opportunities for students and greater wellness supports to meet the needs of the diverse community in Camrose.
“These are important voices that don’t always get a place at the table.”
Even the choice of management as his field of study was influenced by desire to help others, to ensure fairness for everyone.
Management is a field that he believes affects everyone.
“Everyday lives interact with business in a number of ways, and businesses are run through a number of strategies. Management allows me to think of unique and progressive strategies that will maximize business opportunities, while meeting society’s needs.”
As Ng’ong’a graduates, he’s eager to strengthen his new skills through a position with a water utility company that will take him across Canada.
He hopes to return to the U of A in a few years to earn a master’s in business administration, and plans to eventually create and run an NGO or startup.
“I want to create an enterprise to focus on helping vulnerable communities somewhere in the world.”
Ng’ong’a was supported in his studies through a Peter Lougheed Scholarship, Continuing Undergraduate International Student Awards, a Border Paving Ltd. Scholarship, funding from Ricoh Canada, a Rotary Club of Camrose Scholarship, the Dorothy Clapson Memorial Scholarship, an International Entrance Leader Award, an International Student Scholarship, an Augustana Faculty Honors Scholarship and a University of Alberta International Country Scholarship.