After 21 years running USIU-A and about 15,000 students later – Prof. Freida Brown is curtsying out.
It’s been a long road for a girl who was born in the small town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, US, but grew up in St Louis, Missouri.
When she came back to Kenya in 1994 as the VC (she first came in 1990 as a visiting lecturer), she didn’t plan to stay, but the universe conspired and 21 years later, she is still here, having seen two generations pass through her hands at the institution.
Fittingly, she sat at the head of a large moody-surfaced table in her boardroom for this interview. Behind her, on a large glass-wall unit, sat numerous trophies illustrating her career.
She was contemplative, reflective, funny and, often, emotional. Twice, tears sprung to her eyes.
Why did you stay on for 21 years?
You know, I don’t know. (Chuckles). I think what happened was that I got involved in the job. Prior to this job, I rarely spent more than five years in one place.
I think it’s because I got bored too easily. When I came here, I gave it three to five years but every three to five years, something changed so there was never a dull moment.
What will you miss most when you leave?
I’ll miss when I’m feeling down and walking across campus and young people wave at me and give me a smile.
When the chips were down and I wanted to pack up and go back home, my mom always told me to remember why I’m here, not for the accolades but for the young people… yeah, I will miss that.
What have been some of the defining moments for you?
I have lost people and in some ways those losses have had a great impact on me in terms of what direction I took. Getting a doctorate degree was defining, definitely. Oh and getting divorced. (Laughs) That was a defining moment all right. Oh, I only stayed married for three years.
Three years? Wow, you really hang in there…
Oh a long time! Don’t even go there! (Chuckles) You know… actually getting divorced back in the States got me onto a different tangent career-wise because I was free!
We didn’t have kids, so I left him and went to California and it’s that job that eventually led me here.
But also getting married in itself was a defining moment, because I was working at California University, my alma mater, and I left a career that was blossoming and moved to Baltimore with this man I had only known for six months, a man I barely knew…
Oh, you must have been a romantic.
I was. (Laughs) But like I said, I never stayed anywhere for more than five years – including my marriage apparently. So those moments have impacted on my life. I tell people to have a work-life balance but I don’t. This place has been everything to me for 21 years, it’s been my family.
You know, I also left a man in San Diego, who passed on. And after 21 years here sometimes I wonder, should I have married him? Should I have gone back home? There have been negatives and positives but I don’t regret the choices I made.
After 21 years of doing this daily, I imagine when you walk away, you will be left with this colossal hole in your life. How are you going to fill that?
I have no idea! [Pause] I have no idea. Every time I think of walking out that gate for the last time, it just chokes me up it’s… it’s been my life. [Gets emotional] And I mean… I don’t know. [Starts tearing] Sorry, but you know, it will be fun figuring the next step. I don’t know… maybe it will be pole dancing with my bad knees in St. Louis. It’s a new job opportunity and good exercise too. (Laughs)
Maybe get more involved in academics in my country. I’ve always wanted to write. I want to take watercolour classes, pottery, photography classes. I will see what comes out, whatever is fun.
You know, Ms Brown, I have a very strong feeling you can really excel in that pole dancing thing…
[Laughs hard] Don’t you put that one down! It’s off the record! (Laughs).
But seriously, what have you learnt about yourself during your years at USIU?
Well, I think I have learnt that I’m a bit more of a perfectionist than I thought. My mom used to tell me that things cannot be as perfect as I want them to be.
Not to accept mediocrity but to be able to balance the need to be perfect and reality is key.