On the heading, it is named a certificate of achievement.
Its description reads: “This award is proudly presented to Onyango Geoffrey Owino in recognising the top student of the Bachelor of Science in International Business Administration with a GPA of 3.844 (Magna Cum Laude).”
When you consider the fact that Mr Owino joined the university that gave him that award as a cleaner on a casual basis, and that in pursuit of the degree he was handling cleaning duties from 8am to 5pm then attending evening classes from 5.30pm to 9.20pm, you understand why the man in his mid-30s cherishes that recognition.
“Most people never believe that a cleaner can be at the top of his class,” he says in a mild-mannered demeanour he has adopted throughout our interview at his workplace and school, the United States International University-Africa (USIU).
Now he is more than a cleaner at USIU, an institution he joined in 2009—four years after sitting the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam at Boro High School in Siaya County.
Having failed to attain the cut-off mark required of male students to secure government sponsorship for university then, he had few options and being a cleaner became his most available route to survival because of the poverty that was plaguing his family of five children (he is the second born) led by a single mother after their father died when he was in Form One.
“Having no resources to further my education, I decided to come to Nairobi to look for any available job that could sustain me and keep me going, together with my family,” says Mr Owino.
Starting off as a cleaner, he progressed from being a casual labourer to being a permanent employee and has risen through the ranks to hold a supervisory role. And starting from 2017 when he enrolled for a bachelor’s degree, he is not just a Form Four leaver.
The bachelor’s degree in international business administration that he was awarded in September alongside the magna cum laude recognition, he says, gives him some sort of self-belief.
“I’m now confident. You see, if you’ve graduated, there is that confidence that comes with the degree,” he says.
Enrols for MBA course
And he has not stopped there. He is now a Master of Business Administration (MBA) student at USIU, specialising in strategic management. “So far, so good. That is what I can say because this is my third semester and hopefully next year I will be graduating. And I deliberately did MBA because, as I keep saying, I have an enormous vision for my people back in Siaya,” he says.
That vision is about being an inspiration. He reckons it might take the shape of a political office. But he has put that thought in the freezer until he bags his MBA.
His motto? “Don’t focus on your humble beginnings. Just believe in yourself and keep sight of your vision.”
He speaks so because he knows what humble beginnings look like when he flashes back on his life in Seje village. His father Willis Onyango was a trader but barely made enough. His mother is a peasant and would sometimes hawk items at Boro market.
“At times, I had to forgo some classes [in secondary school] to work in someone’s shamba to get that Sh150 to Sh250 so that at least I could have something for my siblings,” he says Mr Owino.
“We only managed to build my mum a semi-permanent house just recently. It was tough.”
The motivation to enrol for a degree came from his younger brother (the fourth born), who was among the best KCSE performers from Siaya in 2017.
“In 2017, I was really pleased by his remarkable performance and the destination that he chose. So, I just decided that I also need to further my education. And I believe that the sky is the limit. So, I just enrolled for my undergraduate programme, not knowing how I would raise the fees because what they used to pay me could not sustain the fee,” he says.
Luckily for him, USIU made him a permanent employee and absorbed him into its Education Tuition Waiver (ETW) programme in which beneficiaries only pay for expenses like library, ICT lab, activity fees and others, but the tuition fees are catered for.
“As a staunch believer in God, I was absorbed in terms of employment to be permanent and pensionable. That’s when this package came. It’s sort of a scholarship,” he says.
Asked why he thinks he got the promotion, Mr Owino says it is because of his dedication to his work. “Most students were recommending me for that particular position,” he says.
On LinkedIn, where a friend shared the news his excellence in September, a number of USIU alumni showered praises on him.
“I remember in 2011/2012 when he’d pop in to my then room for cleaning. Humble man indeed,” wrote John Mutahi.
Peterson Njagi stated: “Having been a recipient of his service, I must say Onyango is highly disciplined, hardworking and efficient. I am extremely happy to see his stars shine.”
Yusuf Shapayah said: “I know Geoffrey pretty well having worked with him at USIU. He’s going places.”
It is under the tuition waiver that Mr Owino is taking his MBA.
During his undergraduate studies, he was inspired by the fact that politicians like Junet Mohamed and Esther Passaris were also students. He attended some classes with them. “These people really encouraged me. I was wondering how they were balancing their responsibilities,” he says.
The 3.844 mark he scored is weighted out of four and captures all grades scored throughout the four-year course. “In USIU, we use the American grading system where 4.0 is the highest and the lowest is 1.0,” says Mr Owino.