Growing up in rural Kenya without a means on transportation other than her feet, Jerono Rotich had to work hard for her education from the beginning. She ran 20 miles a day, barefoot, to and from school — five miles there in the morning, five miles home for lunch, five miles back in the afternoon and five miles home in the evening. In addition to instilling a life-long love of running and physical activity, the daily journey to and from school reinforced for her the importance of education.
Rotich, a professor at NC A&T, tries to instill in each of her students the same appreciation for learning she developed at an early age.
As a professor in the Department of Human Performance and Leisure Studies in the School of Education at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Rotich tries to instill in each of her students the same appreciation for learning she developed at an early age.
“If you have knowledge, you are empowered and you can serve as a catalyst for change as well as a role model and mentor,” Rotich said. “My goal is to have students leave my class empowered, successful, feeling accomplished and that they can apply the information they’ve learned. When you feel confident and empowered, you can help other people.”
For her passion, energy and creativity in the classroom, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors awarded Rotich the 2015 Excellence in Teaching award for A&T State University. Since 1993, the board has offered annual excellence in teaching awards, which come with a $12,500 stipend and a bronze medallion, to one professor at each of the 17 UNC institutions. The board intends the awards to encourage, support and reward good teaching, which members see as the primary responsibility of North Carolina’s public universities and the NC School of Science and Math, a public, residential high school for gifted students.
At A&T, Rotich teaches classes in health and human performance. “Exercise is medicine,” she said. “It’s affordable; it’s accessible. I love to teach people how to exercise.” She has also developed a global studies class, in which students videoconference with their counterparts in China, Senegal and India and volunteer in nursing homes, soup kitchens and recreation centers in their communities.
“I am very sensitive to diversity in terms of backgrounds, experiences and challenges, because of where I’m from,” she said. “I would like to prepare my students for global diversity.”
In the classroom, Rotich engages students using a wide range of teaching practices. She asks them to deliver presentations, hold debates and spend time reflecting and sharing. In addition, she encourages students to visit her during office hours with issues or questions — and to not wait until the end of the semester to seek help.
“I believe every student has the potential, and it’s my role as a faculty member to empower the students to discover their potential and abilities,” she said. “You have to take the time to make students feel they’re appreciated and empowered and loved.”
Angelica Smith, who graduated from A&T in 2014 and now helps facilitate the afterschool program at the Triad Math and Science Academy in Greensboro, says Rotich had a huge impact on her as a sports science and fitness management major. (In fact, the community service Smith carried out at the math and science academy as a part of Rotich’s field experience class in 2013 led to her current job.)
“She taught us to think about life and the future,” Smith said. “In college, you often think in-the-moment. She taught us to think of the bigger picture, telling us what you do now will affect how you are in the future.
“She’s very friendly,” Smith continued. “She has an open-door policy; she’s always there. She’s a great mentor to a lot of us.”
From Kenya to North Carolina
Rotich grew up in Elgeyo Marakwet County in western Kenya, known as “The County of Champions” because it produces a large number of the country’s elite runners. In addition to running to and from school each day, she competed at running through university, specializing in middle distances.
Her father taught math at a K-12 school, bringing home $30 a month in pay, and her mother stayed at home and raised Rotich and her eight siblings. Though the family home did not have electricity, running water or the Internet, her father saw to it that his children received a proper education, requiring them to complete a math quiz every evening along with their chores (not fun, she said).
“My father was always a role model,” Rotich said. “He was very hard working and a disciplinarian. He helped me manage my time and stay focused.”
One of the top students in the county after seventh grade, Rotich was selected to attend Kenya High School, an all-girls boarding school in Nairobi. Living in a city for the first time in her life, she had electricity and running water, wore shoes other than on special occasions and Sundays and ate bread.
She went on to study at Kenyatta University, also in Nairobi, where she earned a degree in physical education. After graduation, she taught physical education and coached running at the high school and university levels — coaching the Kenyan women’s national track and field team from 1990 to 1994. Then, upon the encouragement of a Kenya-born professor visiting from the United States, she decided to journey to the U.S. to pursue further studies.
In 1999, she earned her master’s degree in physical education from the State University of New York at Brockport, and in 2004, she received her doctorate in exercise science, health and physical education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She started teaching at A&T in 2005.
Several teachers and mentors through the years influenced Rotich’s approach to teaching. At Kenya High School, her geography teacher Ida Odinga, a former prime minister of Kenya, helped her with the transition from rural to urban life. Seeing Rotich and other village students bullied and taunted for not having items the city kids had, Odinga purchased for them shoes and other necessaries. “She empowered me. She went the extra mile,” Rotich said. “Now, I look at the students, and I listen to them.”
At Kenyatta University, her physical education professor and running coach Wycliffe Njororai helped her find a balance between being a student and being an athlete. “Student-athletes tend to focus so much on athletics that they forget education,” she said. “Before we went to the field to practice, he would say, ‘Have you finished your homework? Have you finished your assignments?’ He made very clear to me that I was a student first. I appreciate that fact.”
And finally, at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Professor Tom Martinek in the Department of Health and Human Sciences helped her navigate cultural issues and the challenges of pursuing advanced education as a single mother without many resources. “I felt like he was interested in me,” she said. “I felt like he wanted me to succeed. He helped me discover my potential. That’s when I started working with youth empowerment.”
Though she has faced many challenges in her journey from a Kenyan village to the front of a university classroom in North Carolina, “it has been wonderful,” she said.
“I want to pay back, and I want to pay forward,” she said. “I’m paying back by helping those who helped me, and I’m paying forward by helping my students and motivating them. I strive to light a fire in every student.”
Story by Christina Cooke
Photos contributed by NC A&T State University