You are the Change

By Catherine Koanja, ’18 Health Sciences

Photo by David Schmitz

“The moment I was accepted to San Jose State, I knew change was beginning.”

As a child, I assumed that my parents had all the answers in the world—including how to read. When I was eight years old, I discovered my mother was illiterate.

Kwenda kulala,” she would tell me. “Just go to sleep” in Swahili. All I ever wanted was for her to read me a bedtime story. She was ashamed. I was embarrassed. We sat in my second-grade class for parent day. She loved my drawings, but what about my sentences? Our parents were supposed to read our books to us. The fear in her eyes. She couldn’t do it. We left.

I first understood the concept of illiteracy the day I went with my mother to a doctor’s appointment. The physician had prescribed my mother medication for her increasing hypertension. My mother asked me to read the dosage information. I asked, “Why can’t you read it yourself?” My mother answered, “I can’t read.”

I was depicted as a statistic: African-American, low-income, former Section-8 recipient, a first-generation American. My dark skin, kinky hair and an African name, Mauwa, illustrated the beauty of the countries that my parents come from. But, in America, these characteristics that shape my identity foreshadowed my early failure and illustrated the downfalls and obstacles people foresee for me in today’s white society. People made assumptions about the course of my life. I began to believe I was a failure. Throughout generations on my mother’s side of the family, each woman was illiterate. “Why not continue the cycle?” I thought. I was lost.

The moment I was accepted to San Jose State, I knew change was beginning. It was here that the cycle of illiteracy shattered. I know the pathway of my life now. I chose to be a nurse not because of my family’s struggles, but because of my passion to advocate for health literacy. Just like my mother, there are thousands of others in this world who are illiterate and do not receive adequate care. Health literacy is the career that will allow me to help individuals obtain, understand and process basic health information and to receive appropriate health services. I don’t just want to be a nurse who cures, but one who merges public health and nursing, helping patients have greater control over their health.

My mom always told me, “You are the change of the women in the Koanja family.” I am the first. The first to read. The first to write. The first to even step foot in a classroom. Now going to college and pursuing a career in public health and nursing? This is a dream that no one knew would become true.

I will continue to teach my mother to become literate. I will have her read my license as a registered nurse. As I hand it to her with great pride, the only words that will come out of my mouth are, “Thank you.”

A Spartan Pride Scholarship recipient, Koanja and her two siblings will all graduate this spring: Koanja from SJSU, her younger brother from high school and her older brother from design school.


Jody Ulate

Jody Ulate, '05 MA English, is editor of the Washington Square blog and printed alumni magazine.

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1 Response

  1. Christine Rios says:

    Congratulations on your graduation and future success! You are an inspiration to future SJSU graduates!

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