Steve Zylius / University Communications Undergraduate Nithin Jilla's commitment to improving education for poor students in Africa prompted him to organize the UC Irvine chapter of Kenya Dream.

Dreaming big

After starting a campus club to assist Kenya schools, Nithin Jilla aims to improve access to education on a global scale

When Nithin Jilla first floated the idea of starting a club at UC Irvine to raise serious money for secondary schools in Kenya, he encountered skepticism – and for good reason. It was the summer of 2010, and he was just a freshman who hadn’t even taken his first class.

“I was at SPOP [UCI’s Student Parent Orientation Program], and we were talking about what goals we wanted to accomplish during college. I said I wanted to help less fortunate students in Kenya get an education,” recalls Jilla, now a third-year computer science major. “People were in disbelief. They didn’t think it would happen.”

They don’t doubt him anymore. Since he came to campus and founded the UCI chapter of Kenya Dream, the group has covered two years’ tuition for 16 students through The School Fund and raised more than $50,000 for renovation projects at three Kenyan schools.

Members are supporting efforts to rebuild a science lab at a secondary school in Nthimbiri that currently has no roof and a few old pieces of equipment; create a library and provide textbooks for students at Nkubu Victory Academy; and fix a dilapidated school in Kachiuru.

“I got involved in Kenya Dream at Cupertino High School. When I came to UCI, I wanted to take it to the next level. So I went out there and tapped into the campus resources,” Jilla says. “I met with other student leaders, my hallmates and administrators in different departments, such as Student Affairs and dining, for help with organizing our events. The more I told people about Kenya Dream, the more they were in on it.”

Thanks in part to his charisma, the chapter quickly grew to about 30 members, most of them freshmen and sophomores new to the ways of fundraising. Jilla proved so adept at marshaling support and planning events that he received the 2011 Anteater Award for campus organization President of the Year, a rare honor for a freshman.

“I’m very social for a [computer science] major,” he jokes. “I love talking with people and being able to connect with them.”

Sandy Jones, executive director of student government, first heard about Jilla when he sought help for Kenya Dream from the Associated Students’ Student Programming Funding Board. He made one of the best presentations panel members had ever seen.

“Nithin is unique in his ability to create a compelling vision that motivates teams and execute the smaller and less glamorous tasks necessary to fulfill it,” Jones says. “He’s not an idealist – he’s a realist working toward an ideal. He sees Kenya Dream as a pilot model for a larger network of student philanthropists. He’s an example of how UCI attracts and cultivates global leaders.”

His first year here, Jilla and fellow volunteers wasted no time launching a major event: Ken-Ya Dance. He lined up popular dance crews such as UCI’s Kaba Modern and, in spring 2011, put on a show that nearly filled the Bren Events Center. “I wanted to go big,” Jilla says. The affair broke even, but he learned from his mistakes. The spring 2012 Ken-Ya Dance netted more than $10,000.

Jilla has a gift for guerilla marketing. To publicize the dance showcase, he and several club members donned sandwich boards and wandered around Celebrate UCI. They plastered stickers on Zot-n-Go cup holders and on cards in the napkin holders of campus dining halls.

Kenya Dream originated in 2006 when Jilla and his classmates at Cupertino High School made an unusual pledge their freshman year. Instead of raising money for parties, dances and proms, the class of 2010 would donate all proceeds for the next four years to helping Kenyan students afford an education. Kenya Dream soon grew into a schoolwide endeavor with support from the Rotary Club, which manages the projects in Africa.

“If I wasn’t doing this, I’d miss it. That’s why I started the club at UCI,” Jilla says. “I’m inspired by the values outlined by Chancellor [Michael] Drake for the university: appreciation, intellectual curiosity, integrity, respect, commitment, empathy and fun. That’s what Kenya Dream is all about.”

Jilla has been busy helping UCI students attain better futures too. As the ICS Student Council’s past corporate outreach chair and current vice president of external affairs, he’s met with executives from Microsoft, Google and other companies, increasing the number of those that participate in UCI career fairs and other on-campus recruiting efforts from 20 to 150.

His own resume is impressive. Last year, as a marketing intern for the UCI Career Center, Jilla came up with the idea of promoting the facility with posters featuring student testimonials.

“Instead of just saying, ‘Come to the center,’” he says, “we shared stories of engineering students – with quotes about how the center helped them find a job – and we posted them around the engineering school. We tried to target the testimonials toward each school.”

Jilla also served as an ASUCI Bren Events Center Advisory Board member and helped organize the first TEDxUCIrvine conference last February, lining up 18 speakers, meeting with professors, touting the event on social media, recruiting interns, etc.

Despite his packed schedule, he’s on track to earn a bachelor’s degree in ICS next June – one year early – then work in the industry and start his own company. “I have a passion for technology, nonprofits and business. I want to bring them together,” Jilla says.

Before leaving UCI, though, he’s got plans. He wants to launch a fundraiser called Ken-Ya Sing in the winter quarter that will feature vocal groups from the area.

Jilla’s also working to expand Kenya Dream. He and former high school classmate Justin Li, now a UC Berkeley undergraduate, recently created a nonprofit called Dream for Schools to improve access to education globally.

“We want to get people all over the nation involved. We want to build this as big as other established organizations like UNICEF and the Red Cross,” Jilla says.

Think he’ll succeed? He may have his doubters, as he did when beginning at UCI, but anyone who has collaborated with him on Kenya Dream believes.

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