Gratitude and wonder: An Ames Scholar reflects on the gift of an education

Mbugua Robert “Wawa” Chege ’07 was the first of the Ames Scholar alumni to reach out to SPU when he heard his friend and benefactor, Gary Ames, had passed away in May 2021.

“I’ve always been so thankful for that feeling of investment and support by people who didn’t know me,” Chege wrote to Jeff Jordan, SPU’s vice provost who has oversight of the Ames Scholars program, which provides scholarships to students from underrepresented cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

“I always felt this sense of gratitude and wonder. Why would they do that?” Chege wrote.

Today, Chege, 37, is the East Africa regional director for the Mennonite Central Committee, overseeing six countries in his region. MCC’s projects work to ensure that people have access to health care, education, food, clean water, and jobs.

But the educational path to his profession wasn’t clear for him in the beginning.

Chege was born in Kenya (where he once again lives), but he fell in love with SPU on a trip to Seattle to visit friends when he was a teenager. “I grew up in the church,” he said, so he was eager to attend a Christian university. But Chege was the fifth child of Samuel Mbugua, then a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, and Susan Reno, a lab technician from Pennsylvania with family in Georgia. His parents had already supported four daughters through college in Georgia.

“My parents tried, but they said, ‘You’ll probably need to go to a public school or a community college.’ A private university was out of the question.”

Chege persevered, working with the Admissions team at SPU. Dutifully, he filled out scholarship applications, but without much confidence.

Two weeks after filling out scholarship applications, Chege got a letter. He had been accepted as an Ames Scholar to SPU. The scholarship provided him with the exact amount he needed to cover tuition costs.

Being an Ames Scholar also created an instant community for students like Chege. “You were part of a cohort. An Ames minority cohort,” he said. Ames Scholars attended Early Connections, a program that helps first-generation college students and those from culturally diverse backgrounds meet one another and learn to navigate life on campus before the school year begins. Being an Ames Scholar also came with responsibilities.

“You were asked to be part of a leadership team in the community,” he said. The student leadership experiences gave Chege a taste for giving back to a community and helping others. It laid the groundwork for his eventual career in humanitarian work.

Each year, the scholars were invited to a luncheon with Gary and Barbara Ames where the couple spent time with every single student. “As a minority student, you were not sure if you belonged [at SPU],” he said. “It was predominantly white and wealthy. But the Ameses told us, ‘You can do this. We believe in you, and we trust in you. You will more than graduate. You will do well.’”

Those lunchtime conversations left an indelible impression. “They were both warm and engaging,” Chege said, describing the Ameses. “They were very intentional about meeting all of us on a one-on-one basis. They asked very intentional questions about our lives: How is your home life? What are your dreams and hopes? Not the kind of questions everyone asks. They really wanted to know who we were. Not how we were but who we were.”

Gary and Barbara opened up, too. “They told us about their family. It was a mutual sharing of stories,” he said. “They were very warm and personable. They made the minority population feel safe. You knew you had your fellow Ames scholars and Gary and Barbara cheering for you.”

More than anything, Chege wishes he could have had one last tea with Gary and Barbara. “I’d say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for being so kind and generous, for wanting to make the world a better place.’”

And he’d make sure they knew what the Ames Scholarship meant to him. “It was so effective. It was amazing and brilliant. They may not know it, but I would tell them,” he says. “They may not know how much they’ve changed this world, but they’ve created earthquakes that have shifted the trajectory of hate and injustice toward love and reconciliation.”

When the Ameses established their scholarship in 2001, less than 10% of students at SPU were students of color. By the fall of 2021, more than 50% of the freshman class were students from underrepresented cultural and ethnic backgrounds. To date, the Ameses have supported more than 130 students through their scholarship program.

Chege would tell Gary about his wife, Kristen Leighter ’05, whom he met at SPU, and their children: Ella, 8, Benson, 5, Mandela, 3, and Maya, 1. He’d share with Gary about how they’ve used their degrees — Chege’s in political science with a geopolitics minor — to advocate on behalf of the poor.

“You know how God believes in human beings, no matter who they are or what they’ve done? That whole unconditional love?” Chege asked. That’s what the Ameses demonstrated to him.

Gratitude from Other Ames Scholars

“During my senior year of high school, I remember staying up late at night stressing out about how I was going to pay for college, since I knew my parents would not be able to contribute. To my amazement, God had placed the Ameses in my journey. They believed in me so early on in my profession and invested in me when they didn’t have to. I started my last year of medical school this year, and I can tell you I would not be here without their support.”

Diana Cabrera ’17, biochemistry
Fourth-year medical student applying for a pediatrics residency in the fall

“I knew Gary and Barbara Ames from their founding of the Ames Scholarship program at SPU, which was key in helping me pay for college. I could not be where I am now in my life if it were not for their support, kindness, and generosity. If the measure of our life is based on the positive impact that we have had on others, Gary Ames’ legacy will live on for years and years to come.”

Bree Brinson ’18, political science/international affairs
Program associate at the Social Science Research Council, New York City

“Thank you for all the support that the Ames Scholarship provided to help me reach my goals when I lost my mother and brother. I currently have a family and have been happily married to my wife, Kim, for five years, with a 2-year-old daughter named Adaley. My life has been forever changed by Barbara and Gary’s contribution to my future and family.”

Rodel Doria ’11, communications/political science
Senior technical program manager at Salesforce

“Every year from 2011 to 2015, I had the great pleasure of speaking with the Amses and sharing my dreams of becoming a physician. I recall Mrs. Ames holding my hand with Mr. Ames right beside us, speaking life into me and encouraging me to keep going. Every year, when I felt out of place, I looked forward to those moments [with the Ameses]. Today, I have a master’s degree and will be attending medical school this fall. In four years, I will be part of the 2% of Black women-physicians in the U.S.”

Shayla Reid ’15, physiology
Medical school student

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