From Kenya to Catawba College, Award-Winning Grad Plans to Solve Environmental Problems
May 18, 2021
There is a river in Kenya that once ran pure and sweet.
Alberto Borges, on the day that he graduated college, thinks of that river and his boyhood home as he sits in the sunshine, wrapped in academic medals, his black graduation gown, and the praise of the college president, spoken to Alberto's classmates from the graduation lectern.
He is preparing to leave Catawba College. He is now a 24-year-old Kenyan who came here on a full scholarship to study Environment & Sustainability and earned Catawba's highest academic honor, the Whitener Award. He has a plan. Someday, he will build a Wilderness Conservation Center that will enable him and others to explore, research, and conserve Northern Kenya, and restore that river's ecological integrity.
Graduation Day is bittersweet. He heard the college president call out the parents of the graduates, thanking them, and he knows that his mom was watching the ceremony on a live feed back home in Kenya. He is missing his family, especially his dad who passed away in October 2020 of a heart attack, before seeing Alberto reach this part of his dream. "He inspired me to continue, to take care of the family, and to fill the gap that he left behind," he says. He dedicated the Whitener Award in memory of his dad. He grew up watching nature films on TV and learning about wildlife and the environment with his dad.
"When I was 6 or 7 years old, my dad told me that one of the greatest mistakes in life is to give up," he says. "That helps me to find hope, to find passion, to find the fire, and I am able to move on. In addition, that ties in to discipline. My dad was very particular about discipline, holding ourselves with respect, being good members of society, and embracing the beauty of life."
His educational path has not been easy. With three children in college, his parents consented to Alberto leaving Kenya to study in the southern United States, when Dr. Luke Dollar, Chair of the Department of Environment & Sustainability at Catawba, offered him a full scholarship. Alberto recalls that Dr. Dollar told him that he intended to hold his hand for the next 10 years, to see him through his Ph.D. Alberto's dad was a retired high school principal, and his mom studied tourism and now runs a cafeteria in Nairobi.
Alberto was already in college, at Kenyatta University in Nairobi County, Kenya, but the faculty was on strike frequently and his education was halted, he says. Alberto met Dr. Dollar in 2017 at a National Geographic Explorers Conference in Washington, DC. Both are Explorers involved in the Society.
He enrolled at Catawba in 2018 as a sophomore, after a conservation work trip to Madagascar with Catawba students, led by Dr. Dollar. Alberto remains impressed that the Catawba College president met him on his first day on campus. He feels at home at Catawba and talks of the support of his foster parents, Jude and Nalini Joseph, who take him to Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. He was fascinated with his Catawba classes — History, Social Justice, Wildlife Ecology, Recreational Leadership, Botany, and Geographic Information Systems. He has spoken at Salisbury civic clubs and churches about his journey and his goals for a Wilderness Conservation Center in Kenya. The day after graduation, he spoke at the Duke University Chapel.
"Catawba offered me a chance to create my own experience," he says. "My dad encouraged us to study the things we had interests in, so that we would do it passionately, unlike other parents who encourage children to study what the parents want," he says.
He was back home in Kenya, in 2020, unable to get back to the States during the pandemic and struggling with studying remotely when his dad died unexpectedly. He thought of dropping out of college, but a group of Catawba professors — Dr. Amanda Rushing, Dr. Carmony-Hartwig, Dr. Maria Vandergriff-Avery, and others — reached out, giving him time to mourn before returning to Catawba. On this graduation day, he is grateful.
He will attend graduate school at either the University of Western Australia or University College of London. He is financially insecure and will need grants and scholarships or sponsorships, but he is determined.
He thinks in terms of the global impact of pollution on the environment. After his doctorate, he will return to Kenya and the Athi River where Fourteen Falls lies ... that beautiful place of good memories with his family. He will develop the Wilderness Conservation Center that he dreams about. His organization, The Explorers Club of Kenya, has already done a study on the effects of aquatic and land pollution on the Athi River, in a project called the Athi River Expedition. "I grew up in that watershed," he says. "Today, there is sewage floating downstream from industrial and residential expansion in Nairobi. Plastics, wastewater, heavy metals — they're affecting the wildlife."
His childhood memories are of clean air and water with no pollution. "My dad took me on picnics to the Fourteen Falls," he says. "The falls are all lined up; it was beautiful back then but not today." His journey is leading him back there, to find his place in this global environmental effort that is his passion ... so that others will be able to embrace the beauty of nature ... and of life.