A Mother’s Journey Through College: Catherine Kigiri, BS in Advanced Manufacturing Systems, First Gen

Originally from Kiambu, Kenya, an agricultural village just eight miles outside of Nairobi, Catherine Kigiri arrived in Boston in 2000 on a visitor visa and was the only member of her family to take the trip. Upon arrival, she stayed with a friend who was from her village and who settled in Quincy a few years earlier.  

After some time, Kigiri decided that she wanted to stay a little longer. She discovered that unlike Kenya’s school system, American schools opened their doors to nontraditional students, and she saw an opportunity for herself to become a first generation college graduate. Kagiri first thought about applying to a nursing program, but she did not have the resources to enroll. Instead, she applied for a student visa and enrolled at Quincy College. 

To support herself, she secured an entry level job as an inspector at GE Aerospace in Lynn, MA, taking the second shift, a shift that typically begins at 3:00 P.M. and ends at 11:00 P.M. This work schedule gave Kigiri the flexibility to attend classes in the daytime. 

While she studied part time and worked at GE Aviation, her life progressed. She met a man, married him and had three children. Her two sisters back home in Kiambu graduated high school and needed money to attend college. She volunteered to send money back home to pay for her sisters’ academic pursuits. She raised her children and made a home for them. 

Kigiri graduated Quincy College with her associates degree in liberal arts and sciences. GE offered her the first shift, and when she started her new work schedule, she learned about the partnership between Northeastern College of Professional Studies and GE. Aligned with federal workforce development objectives, Northeastern and GE co-developed the BS in Advanced Manufacturing Systems, which incorporates state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques in use across the industry. In the program, students apply those techniques in a real-world manufacturing environment.

The collaboration was made possible through the Department of Education’s Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) experiment, an initiative aimed at improving students’ access to a high-quality postsecondary education in fast-growing industries. GE employees can complete the program within three years, or in as little as one-and-a-half years for those with prior college experience. The program also offers tuition reimbursement. 

Before Kagiri entered the program in October of 2019, she told her husband that she was planning to enter the program, “to better my family and be an example for our kids”, she said. Her husband told her he would support her, but the marriage broke not long after the first semester started. By December 2019, the couple had separated. 

“That is when I decided to really commit to my educational goal. I knew that if I took one class at a time, I could push myself to do it.”

Catherine Kigiri BS in Advanced Manufacturing Systems, First Gen

Around this time, back home in Kiambu, her father was diagnosed with cancer. Kagiri, a newly single parent, now had to take a second job to support his treatment. Still, Kagiri stayed the academic course.  

The pandemic hit the following year and her courses switched to online. Many of her fellow classmates dropped out of the program but Kagiri did not quit.  She said, “I needed to be an example for my kids to work hard. It was tough to continue going to school, provide financial support to my family in Kenya, and raise three kids without help, but Professor [Krassimir] Marchev encouraged me to continue to push myself. He always said, ‘Just focus on one day at a time’ and that’s exactly what I did.” 

Krassimir Marchev, Professor of the Practice, CPS, credited with spearheading the GE partnership on behalf of CPS, said, “Catherine exemplifies, in many respects, the student population of hard-working, committed, family-oriented professionals.” 

Kagiri describes her children, three boys, Denzel, 16; Edward, 10; and Imara 7, as being extremely supportive. “They all were incredibly helpful. If I was attending an online course in the house, they would occupy themselves by doing the dishes, sweeping the floor and then they’d ask ‘mommy were we quiet enough for you?’ They wanted to know if I passed my exams whenever they came up and they were just so supportive of me.”, she said.   

Despite the program’s tuition reimbursement, Kagiri struggled to cover additional expenses such as books and childcare. The financial burden of using her time to attend classes instead of working was crippling. Professor Marchev advised her to apply for Northeastern scholarships, including the Robert Rosenberg, Lowell, and Paul J. Theriault Memorial scholarships, enabling Kagiri to stay focused on graduating. 

“I am so grateful for all the people who donate money, I would not have been able to afford to go to college otherwise. And now, here I am with three kids, one job, graduating with zero crippling debt.”, she said. 

Her father passed away in May of 2023, and Kagiri’s graduation marked the one-year anniversary of his death. “The [graduation] ceremony was particularly emotional because I had hoped he could witness this great achievement.” she said.

Kagiri attributes her drive for academic achievement to her mother, a teacher who prioritized her children’s education despite being unable to afford college for them. 

“I am not just an example for single parents, but for all parents. Take your time and push yourself. You must push yourself every single day. My children are my number one hero. I do this for them. Go to school, be a better person. I set that example to my kids.”  

Her advice for any other parent, single or otherwise: “Just take one class at a time and say “I am beginning today”. Don’t drop out because it is so hard to get back into the routine. Even if it means taking one class at a time, whatever time it takes to finish; I didn’t worry about finishing. In fact, now I’m worried that I’m finished!” 

When asked what her future brings, Kagiri said, “I want to enjoy and celebrate this milestone before I think of my next move. I still cannot believe this is happening to me.”