Karen Lerindo was studying at the University of Nairobi, in Kenya, when she was offered the opportunity to attend Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wis. Though she knew she would miss her family and homeland, she jumped at the chance.
"I felt that getting an American education would give me a better platform to go back to my community and empower the girls through education," says Karen, a freshman at Lakeland. "When I left for the U.S., everyone was proud of me. They said, 'She's going to America!' "
Karen, who's majoring in international business with a minor in economics, is driven to "go back home and fight for the rights of the girls."
"It's like I'm living their dream," she adds.
Karen grew up as a member of the Maasai tribe in Loitokitok, Kenya, near the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. Many of the Maasai, a semi-nomadic people, continue to adhere to long-standing customs that sometimes include general inequality when it comes to women.
"Girls keep quiet," says Karen. "Many of the Maasai don't believe much in education for girls."
But Karen's parents do, and they encouraged her to go to school. She loved it. And through the Kenyan Education Fund and the Zawadi Africa Education Fund, Karen blossomed with each educational step she took.
"I know I am bright, and when you succeed, it's fun," she says with a smile. "We are encouraged to become women leaders," she says.
One of those leaders, a woman named Kakenya Ntaiya, has been featured as one of CNN's Top 10 Heroes for 2013. Ntaiya, who is from Karen's community, returned to Kenya after a U.S. college education and founded her village's first-ever primary school for girls.
"She gives me strength to do great things," Karen says of her countrywoman.
Karen, whose goal is to work for the Kenyan government's treasury department some day, likes Lakeland, but at times is deeply homesick for her parents, two brothers and two sisters.
"It's not always easy, but I encourage myself," she says. "I tell myself, I know I can make it."