“Please, can I just tell you my story?”
Victor Yegon was not afraid to sound desperate.
Speaking over the phone with John Manners, co-founder and president of the Kenya Scholar-Athlete Project, Yegon knew Manners held the key to a better future for him and his family.
The highly competitive KenSAP program gives underprivileged Kenyan students an opportunity to prepare for and apply to top colleges in the United States, including Lehigh, but only those who score “A plain” — essentially, a straight A — on the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination are given the chance to interview for the program.
Yegon received an A-minus.
But there was a good explanation for his result, and when Manners let him continue, Yegon told his narrative.
When he was entering his sophomore year of high school, his father cut ties from his mother’s side of the family and refused to support Yegon or his siblings financially any longer. A side effect of this decision was his secondary education was put in jeopardy.
In Kenya, the largest annual expense a family faces is often high school tuition, and without his father’s support, Yegon had to drop out after his second year. However, by Kenyan law — though it often goes unenforced — parents are required to pay for their children’s schooling until they are 18 years old.
Knowing this, Yegon took his father all the way to court to get him to pay and eventually won, but in the time it took for the case to be settled he was left with a gap in his education. He did not attend junior year.
“I only stayed at home and helped my mum with farm work while the case was ongoing,” Yegon said.
And even though he won the case, by the time it was all over he faced another problem. He had two years left of high school, but only one year left until he turned 18, and he had no means left to pay for his education. The only solution Yegon could think of was to go straight to senior year and make up for what he missed on his own time.
So he did it.
He worked to make up for what he had missed, but with only three years of secondary education, his A-minus on the KCSE barely missed the cut to apply to KenSAP. Given his special circumstances, he reached out to Mike Boit, a professor at Kenyatta University and a co-founder of KenSAP. Boit referred him to Manners, who initially denied Yegon until he heard the full story.
At the point in time of their conversation, KenSAP had just finished its second day of interviews and only had one day remaining. Not only were the ethics of giving Yegon an interview questionable, but so were logistics with such a short amount of time left in the process.
Against his instincts, Manners decided to give the student an outsider’s shot. He told Yegon they would hear his interview if he was able to finish all of the short answer questions on the application, submit it online and make it to the interview by 4 p.m. the next day.
However, that seemingly easy process entailed a number of a challenges for someone living in a third-world country.
The first step for Yegon was to go to a cyber café, download the application, answer the questions and send it in as fast as possible. After that, things became much less predictable. Yegon needed to somehow find a way — using public transportation — to make it 200 miles from his home village to the area of Kenya where the interviews were being held.
“I honestly thought that was a barrier that no kid would be able to clear,” Manners said. “I thought I had given him an out. My conscience was cleared and we’d never see this kid.”
But he made it.
Manners could not believe his eyes when Yegon walked in. He had managed to get his application in and take four modes of public transportation to arrive on time. And when faced with his interview, he impressed them with his inspirational background.
There was only one part of the application process that was left: a 1500-meter time trial. KenSAP has all of its applicants attempt the distance because no matter what experience they have, any athletic promise should be developed because it may further their chances of gaining admission to universities.
Yegon was far from ready for the run. He did not realize this component and, therefore, had no athletic apparel with him. Most of the others had running shoes, some had flats and others had basketball shoes. With no other choice, Yegon removed his formal shoes and rolled up his sleeves. He made the run barefoot.
Despite the numerous disadvantages he faced, Yegon recorded the best time in the group.
“To me, it felt great to be free and moving fast,” Yegon said. “I think (Manners) was amazed.”
After his interview, Yegon had made an impression on the KenSAP employees because of how much he had to overcome to get there. But once they saw him run barefoot and win, it was clear that he was a student athlete that was deserving of admission into the program.
“(Yegon) had nothing,” Manners said. “And he recorded the best time in our trial.”
When Yegon was accepted into KenSAP, the hard part was over for him. However, his motivation did not cease and instead began to rub off on other members of the program. His reputation was that of a hard worker who wanted his peers to enjoy success as much as he wanted success for himself.
The next big step for Yegon was to narrow his scope in terms of American schools to target for admission. While Manners suggested he look at a Division III school with strong academics, he yearned to compete at the Division I level.
Lehigh emerged as a strong candidate, with three student athletes already having chosen it since the KenSAP program was founded in 2004. Yegon discussed it with sophomore Jasper Chumba, who lives about 200 kilometers north of Yegon back in Kenya and heard about the strong academics and beautiful campus — among other things — that can be found at Lehigh.
Once he decided it was his goal to be a Mountain Hawk, he did not wait for the opportunity to come to him. Yegon continued his theme of proactivity by emailing cross country coach Todd Etters during the summer of 2015 to introduce himself. He was the first KenSAP applicant to reach out to Lehigh directly before a correspondence with Manners and this impressed Etters.
Knowing that Yegon was coming from KenSAP, Etters immediately formed a good impression of him because of the qualities he’s come to expect from those who emerge from the program.
“The more students we can get through that program, the better,” Etters said. “They’re just great kids — really humble, really appreciative, hardworking.”
After exchanging more emails and deciding that Yegon was a good fit for Lehigh, Etters was able to begin to involve other parties such as Morgan Volkart, the director of international recruitment. Once admissions and financial aid got involved, the process entailed a constant stream of communication between Yegon, Manners and Lehigh’s various departments to make sure they were they were on the same page.
While KenSAP operates almost exclusively on the basis of academic scholarships, they ran into a problem with Lehigh as they were low on grant money. However, because of the circumstances, there were a number of highly regarded people at Lehigh that worked hard to make sure Yegon was able to get an athletic scholarship instead — making him the first to earn such a scholarship after coming from KenSAP.
“I think just hearing his background made us really want to be able to get him to Lehigh a little bit more, just knowing that he’s overcome a lot already,” Etters said. “He’s one of those guys where the sky’s the limit.”
Running in the Patriot League will be a new type of competition for Yegon, who operated as a runner in Kenya mostly by training with Brother Colm O’Connell, an Irish Monk from the Order of St. Patrick who has spent much of his time training professional Kenyan runners and some younger runners who have not had the chance to train.
Yegon’s unorthodox mentor was necessary largely because there is little other opportunity in Kenya to train. Unfortunately, though it has the reputation as a powerhouse nation for running, Kenya’s competitive high schools that used to develop runners in the 1970s and 1980s no longer hold themselves to such a high standard. For Yegon, that means that he will be seeing a different competition level both in practice and in races.
To address this, leading up to the start of the fall semester, Etters and Yegon — the coach and athlete pair — talked on the phone roughly once a week to make sure Yegon was doing the most he could to prepare for the season.
So far, his preparation has paid off, as he finished sixth on the team and 17th overall in the 6K Lehigh Invitational with a time of 20:03.1.
“I think I’m going to have a nice cross country season my freshman year,” Yegon said. “I’ve been training hard.”
But despite the magnitude of adversity Yegon faced in his journey to make it to Lehigh, he is not all that different from his first-year counterparts. Living in McClintic-Marshall, he enjoys the style of Lehigh’s buildings and scenery. He’s intending to major in history, something he has always had interest in because of stories he’s heard of the tribal origins of his village in Kenya.
And now, he’s found a home with his teammates, too.