"People in the education field often get caught up in technology. But when you go into a school with no electricity, no books and dirt floors, you realize maybe the best option isn't giving every kid a laptop," says Jimmy Leak '12 (second from left), flanked by Nuru International Ethiopian team members. Courtesy of Jimmy Leak 

Tackling poverty to fight terrorism

Alumnus uses skills learned at UCI in overseeing nonprofit’s education efforts in rural Africa

In the fight against terrorism, Jimmy Leak ’12 isn’t a typical soldier. Instead of military training, he has a Ph.D. in educational policy & social context. And instead of drone strikes, he relies on poems and storybooks.

Leak works for Nuru International, a nonprofit founded by an ex-Marine who sees poverty and hopelessness as fertile soil for terrorists seeking new recruits. To counter that dynamic, Nuru collaborates with poor villagers in building long-term education, health and sustainable farming programs.

After testing its approach in Kenya and Ethiopia, the agency plans to expand to a more volatile nation (still to be chosen) later this year.

For Leak, a bespectacled North Carolina native who helps oversee Nuru’s education efforts, it’s been a sometimes topsy-turvy ride, replete with a bout of malaria, teacher strikes and the haunting sight of a Kenyan colleague laid out in a mortuary after a car crash.

Another drawback: “It’s difficult to keep up friendships back home because of time zone differences and sporadic computer access,” he says.

But the reward of improving impoverished children’s lives makes it all worthwhile, he notes.

The adventure began nearly four years ago, after Leak graduated from UCI as part of the School of Education’s first Ph.D. cohort. The next day, he was on a plane to Kenya. His initial motivation was love: His then-fiancee was conducting dissertation research in the African nation, and Leak wanted to tag along. He discovered Nuru and signed on for a one-year gig.

The temporary job soon turned into something more – a “whirlwind three years” in which Leak increased the agency’s English literacy and teacher training programs in Kenya from nine schools to 17, reaching 5,500 youngsters, then ventured to the mountains of southern Ethiopia to launch a similar campaign.

The classroom materials are often primitive – with students counting pebbles for math lessons and practicing writing with sticks in the dirt – but that doesn’t impede learning, he says.

“People in the education field often get caught up in technology,” Leak says. “But when you go into a school with no electricity, no books and dirt floors, you realize maybe the best option isn’t giving every kid a laptop.”

Still, technology does play a role. “People ask me if I use the skills I learned at UCI with Nuru,” he says. “Yes, every day.” For instance, agency honchos are big on data analysis to track and modify their programs, so Leak set up a monitoring system like one from his Ph.D. days. He also quizzes former UCI classmates about the latest trends in teacher prep, student motivation and instructional methods that could be adapted by Nuru.

Once everything is fine-tuned, the agency team turns the reins over to local leaders and departs. Having passed the torch in Kenya, Leak is currently back in the U.S., guiding other Nuru education efforts.

For now, he’s based in Rochester, New York, but the nonprofit may soon open a central office in Irvine because many of Nuru’s top officers live in Orange County and because the agency recruits former military specialists from nearby San Diego to plan its security strategies in war-torn countries.

Twice a year, Leak visits Kenya and Ethiopia to make sure that Nuru’s school projects remain on course. He carries fond memories of both nations. In 2013, for example, before he and his fiancee briefly returned to the U.S. to get married, they were feted by scores of Kenyan villagers at an elaborate ceremony that featured dancing, cake, processions, music and blessings from a local cleric.

The overall experience has been hugely transformational, Leak says. Working in the midst of dire poverty, “you see what’s important and what isn’t,” he says. “Material possessions don’t mean as much to me now, [partly because]I lived out of two suitcases for three years.”

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