A Coffee with Chemeli Kipkorir


“Chemeli is a Counsellor for the African Leadership Academy in South Africa.”


I took my coffee today with Chemeli who is a Counsellor for the African Leadership Academy in South Africa.  She travelled there from the US for three months and five years later she’s still there.

Hi Chemeli, how do you take your coffee?

Skinny single latte with one sweetener from a local Portuguese coffee chain called Vidae Café.  My mornings have become brighter now that they occupy Shell gas stations so I don’t have to drive out of my way anymore!

Tell us about your work.  What is on your desk at the moment?

It’s March now so we are cleaning up a few mid-year transcripts that have to be sent and working on our curriculum for the rising seniors.  We work with 90 students from all over Africa each year applying to universities around the world.  Almost all require close to full financial aid so we spend a lot of time researching and working closely with schools committed to broadening their global diversity.  We do have a lot more paperwork than most to fill out but it makes for an interesting workday.  No two students have the same story so there is no monotony in this job!

What made you decide to stay at ALA for so much longer than expected?

I came to South Africa at a great time – before the World Cup.  It was very different from what I had read about.  The crime stats are enough to make you think very carefully about making a move here.  I also did not know what to expect at ALA but the opportunity to build a college counselling programme from scratch was enticing.  I ended up staying longer than I intended because I realised I could never get this experience anywhere else.  The diversity and the cultural experience at ALA are breathtaking.  The students, faculty and staff all have amazing stories but all share the same passion in investing their future in Africa.  South Africa itself has been a revelation and shows that opportunity exists in many ways, despite those stats!  

What would you say are the main issues that are raised by your students?

Are the SATs the most important thing in an application?  These are smart, bright and talented students who take the SAT for the first time 6 months after learning about it.  Almost all do as well as they can but it’s a concern for many international students on the continent where the SAT is not part of the curriculum.

Financial aid will always be a major issue.  They research programmes and courses only after determining that international students are eligible for a merit scholarship and additional financial aid at that school. There are so many great universities out there that we would love to work with however we have to remain realistic about costs to families.

How many of your students are interested in studying abroad?

Over 90%! Seeing as almost all of them are now studying in a foreign country, we have begun to see an increasing number of our alumni take the leap and study abroad in their sophomore year in college.  We have enjoyed following up with our students in Brazil, France, Germany, Costa Rica, the UAE and the UK.

Coming to ALA for many of our students was the first time they had to open up their passports.  As a result of meeting other students from other countries, they’ve opened their minds to living and studying abroad.

What are their main concerns about studying abroad?

How they are viewed as an African is important to them.  Fit is an important factor in some of their decisions on where to study abroad.  It does not stop them though from exploring countries new to them but it’s a question that comes up when talking about their options – what school environment will support and encourage the cultural diversity I have to offer?

How long is your usual working day?

It’s not unusual to pull a 10-hour day in the months of October and November, February and March. Luckily, time difference does not really hit us too badly.  If I need to talk with anyone stateside, I can usually do so before 8 pm my time and have material in to them before they are up.  It’s summer in Johannesburg now so I’m usually out by 6 pm to enjoy fantastic dusks!

How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?

If I could do this every weekend, I would be at Galu Beach in Kenya or Hout Bay in Cape Town!  Since that’s not possible, there’s no shortage of things to do in Johannesburg.  I love heading to the farmers markets to sample what’s on offer at the various food stands.  Even better is sitting at any of the amazing restaurants and rooftop bars with amazing views of Johannesburg.  For something different, we are fifteen minutes from a lion park.

South Africa also seems to have become a great event destination. I’ve been to some amazing sporting and musical events here – Confederations Cup, World Cup, Cricket, Rugby, the African Cup of Nations Dave Matthews and U2!  I’ve driven from Nairobi to Johannesburg in a Honda CRV over roads that don’t exist on Google Maps.  I’ve dipped my toe in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean ….. all in one day and quaffed award winning wine at amazing vineyards.  And the food, oh my word the food.  South Africans are real foodies so our guests are spoiled for choice when they get here.  I’ve barely scratched the surface of things to do in Southern African and can’t really leave until I’ve checked off a few things.  Just like working with our students, no day is the same!

Chemeli is a counsellor at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Having spent most of her childhood in Kenya she completed her education in the US and after studying and working there relocated to Kenya.

Questions written by Gill Balfour, Counsellor Liaison and Editor