The dictionary says home is “the place where a person lives.” UMW senior Purity Muthaa has her own definition.
“The lesson I’ve learned from being a citizen of the world is that home is not a place,” she said. “It’s a feeling of community and inclusion.” She found that feeling in her involvement with Mary Washington’s James Farmer Multicultural Center (JFMC).
Her past reads like a passport; she’s lived in Kenya, Botswana, Ghana, Uganda and, of all places, Northern Virginia. She brought UMW a nomadic perspective that adds to classroom discussions, projects and research. The University brought her a chance to lay down some roots, and she planted them deep. From step team to peer mentoring, she’s wrapped herself up in Mary Wash culture, and as an aide at the JFMC, she found friendship … and a place to call home.
Born in the East African country of Kenya, Muthaa moved with her family across the continent for her father’s USAID job. She was 10 when it brought them to the U.S. They lived in Arlington, Great Falls, Chantilly and Centreville. By the end of 12th grade, she’d attended eight different schools.
“I feel like you end up becoming a chameleon,” said Muthaa, whose father traveled thousands of miles from Uganda to watch her cross the Ball Circle stage at tomorrow’s commencement. “You change depending on the environment you’re in.”
Constant motion added depth to her life, exposing her to cultures and customs, religions and languages. She speaks English, Kikuyu, Swahili and Spanish. But moving around has its downside. You can’t get comfortable, let down your guard, let people in, she said.
At Mary Washington, that changed. And she spread herself thin, majoring in economics and working at UMW’s Center for Economic Development and Blackstone Coffee. She was captain of the Alter Egos Step team, a peer mentor with RISE and a member of more than a dozen club and intramural sports teams. She joined groups like Women of Color and Encounter, and served on the Multicultural Leadership Council.
“Purity is a remarkable student with a passion for learning about and celebrating various cultures,” said Marion Sanford, director of the JFMC, where Muthaa worked last semester as a student aide.
There, surrounded by peers from different communities and cultures, with different opinions and views, she formed friendships.
“That for me is the norm,” she said. “The friends I’ve had here have become my family. They’re the people I talk to every day, the people I argue with.”
She brought her voice, too, to the classroom, where she researched multinational corporations in developing countries and fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Having Purity in class,” said Assistant Professor of Economics Amrita Dhar,“definitely added to diverse discussions.”
Muthaa took her education off campus, as well, interning at the United Nations and, for the past four years, at the U.S. Embassy in Uganda. Last year she worked at the consular, where she counseled students like her who hope to go to college in the U.S.
At Mary Washington, she found a future – she plans to go to grad school and use her degrees to help developing countries enforce policies to build their economies – and also, finally, a present.
Before, if someone had asked her where home is, she said, she would have answered, “I have no idea.” Now she does.