Given the average American lifespan of almost 80 years, and further given the fact that most of us interact with at least three new individuals every day, you could very well meet at least 80,000 people over the course of your life. If you spend any amount of time on a college campus, however, that number will most likely be far greater.
Working with students is very much a transitory experience. As the years pass, the sheer number of young men and women who flow in and out of your life makes it almost impossible to keep track of them all—regardless of how kind, funny, and hard-working they are, most of the students you meet will recede into the haze of memory as succeeding waves descend onto campus each autumn.
Every so often, though, you happen upon someone that, for one reason or another, stands apart from the rest, a person that so epitomizes an institution’s ethos and mission that you want to share his or her story with as many people as possible.
American International College’s Ivan Chepyegon is one such individual.
A World Away
Her story begins almost 7,100 miles from AIC’s campus, in Kabarnet, Kenya, or, to be more precise, a small village 15 miles outside the city. That’s where Chepyegon, who runs for AIC’s women’s cross country and track and field teams under the name “Ivy,” was born and grew up. The second youngest of 11 children, she describes her younger years as peaceful and lovingly structured by her parents, Shadrack Chepyegon Amday and Grace Chepyegon, and stresses how much that influence has helped shape her journey.
“All of my family is still in Kenya,” she says with a trace of sadness. “I’m the only one who has left my country, and I miss them all. But I understand the opportunity I have been given. I always try to remember how proud my parents are of me and the sacrifices they had to make to help get me here, so I want to do everything I can to improve my life, and to improve theirs, as well.”
While that may sound like a lot to live up, Chepyegon seems to welcome challenges with a quiet, easy determination. The story of the first time she tried running is a good example. Chepyegon was just 12-years-old, and it was an inauspicious beginning to an athletic career that would eventually lead to a college scholarship.
“The first time I ran, I almost didn’t make it,” she says, laughing. “I fell down and at the last stretch and I pretty much had to be hauled across the finish line. It was not easy. But I always watched my older sister run, so I wanted to be like her and I wanted to see how good I could become. Also, my running coach, who I still talk to, saw something in me when I ran. He kept encouraging me to push myself and told me that I would go far with my running.”
Before long, Chepyegon was attending the Pamwai Girls High School, where she was named Athlete of the Year in track and field for all four of her years. It was an accomplishment that soon attracted attention—a teacher in a neighboring school who had seen her race visited her home after graduation to ask her parents if she would be willing to attend a running training camp in Kapsabet, a town over three hours to the west of her home. While there, she could continue her training and start applying for scholarships to colleges in America.
For a person who had grown up in such a close family, it was a difficult decision, but one that Chepyegon knew was the opportunity of a lifetime. The process, however, would prove to be an even greater challenge than any she had faced in her running competition—over the course of the next three years she would be denied a United States visa three times.
Undeterred, Chepyegon continued a strict running program and began volunteering as a teacher at the local Namgoi Primary School, instructing 11- and 13-year-old students in math, science, and physical education. It was a situation that proved advantageous given that she was required to deliver all lessons in English.
“With my family, I speak Kalenjin, which is my first language and the dialect of my community,” Chepyegon explains. “The national language of Kenya, though, is Swahili, so I had to learn to speak and write that in school. I picked up some English while in high school, but I really started to learn more when I was teaching. That helped give me a good foundation for what I would have to learn when I came to America.”
She would get that chance in early 2015 when the US Department of State finally approved her visa application, allowing her to come to AIC for the spring semester. Chepyegon’s running academy coach was instrumental in determining her next step due to his friendship with Leo Mayo, AIC’s head cross country and track and field coach. When he told Chepyegon about the school’s athletic tradition, small size, plentiful scholarships, and diverse student body—including other Kenyan runners—it felt like the perfect fit.
Yet while her decision to come to AIC was an easy one, adjusting to life America would be more difficult than she could have ever imagined.
Managing Culture Shock
“It began the moment I stepped off the plane,” says Chepyegon. “I arrived in winter, and it was the first time I had ever seen snow. I could not run outside because I just wasn’t used to the cold, and my English still wasn’t as strong as it needed to be, so it took a lot of adjusting. Everything was so new and there was so much culture shock. I felt like I needed to change so much to keep up.”
To help with the adjustment, Chepyegon was redshirted as a freshman for indoor track and ran outdoors extensively to help her get acclimated to the New England weather. She also began an intensive English immersion program while both starting classes (first as a sports management major before moving to economics/finance) and picking up a work-study job in the AIC mailroom, the latter of which she admits was difficult due to its heavy reliance on precision communication. For many, just surviving that type of workload would be considered a success. But again, Chepyegon isn’t your typical student-athlete.
The results certainly speak for themselves. Through her first two years, Chepyegon has maintained a 3.84 GPA, received straight A’s in her English courses, was selected to the Northeast-10 Fall Commissioner’s Honor Roll twice, earned a spot on the Northeast-10 All-Conference second team for cross country twice, and was named to the NCAA Division II All-East Region team for cross country in 2015.
She’s also shown marked improvement on the track, posting her personal best times in the 800 meter (2:20.81), the 1500 meter (4:48.33), the indoor mile (5:15.00) and the 5000 meter (18:10.23) all in 2017. She also placed ninth at Northeast-10 Cross Country Championships with a 6K time of 22:46.2 in her sophomore year, almost a minute better than her freshman time.
Despite the overwhelming success, life in America remains a balancing act. While her English has improved and most of the disorientation she felt after first arriving in America has faded, the differences between cultures remain substantial. There is also the fact that it will be three years since Chepyegon will have a chance to see her family, with her first trip back to Kenya scheduled for sometime in 2018.
“I do miss my friends, the food I grew up with, and even doing simple things like going to the river with my friends and my sisters to get our water,” she explains. “You do not realize what you will miss when you leave your home. That has not been easy.
“But I do love AIC, and I love the diversity, not only on campus but also in America. Everything here is so open: the way people talk, and dress, and share their ideas. In Kenya, there is a lot of culture, which is good, but it means that there are some restrictions, so I could not dress in shorts or in tight clothes, like my track uniform. But here, there is so much freedom, so many opportunities available to everyone.”
That presents another balancing act for Chepyegon—keeping her attention focused on her academics and running while also considering what her future holds.
“Whatever I am doing, I try to focus everything on that thing,” she says. “If I am running, I forget everything else but my running, which is difficult when you’re training at least 50 miles a week. When I am in class, I only concentrate on my work. I do feel that I need to go to graduate school, and I would love to do that here at AIC, but I try to live in the present moment as much as possible. That is the only way I can do my best and improve my life. I owe that to myself and to my family.”
When asked whether her future plans include staying in America or going back home to Kenya, Chepyegon is somewhat hesitant but thoroughly optimistic.
“In Kenya, families live in the same area. So my brother got married, but he still had to build a home near our house because you need a connection to your ancestral land. That is how close families are in Kenya. Also, I am studying economics because that is a career needed everywhere so it would be easy to go back. But I do love my life in America, so I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m just so grateful that there are so many options available to me.”
She smiles before she adds, “Besides, I’m even getting used to running outside in the cold.”
-By Michael Reid
Featured Photo Credit: Seth Kaye