Jean Kayira

The photograph is of a high school girl surrounded by a dozen or so happy friends, posing for a picture in their native country of Malawi.

Smiling faces, hamming for the camera, a lush green background, it’s an image that captures young people gathered about before going on their way, perhaps to school, to chores, to family. To the casual observer, it’s a normal, everyday image of youthful comradery.

Except, it’s the girl’s “first photo of her life,” a memorable moment in what would become a multi-country odyssey that delivered her here to Keene.

Jean Kayira shared that photo from her school days recently, recounting with it the importance of mentorship, of how teachers shape futures and how life-changing journeys can start from things as small as math and Latin lessons.

Kayira, now 53, is the director of the doctorate program in environmental studies at Antioch University New England, which has 75 students currently in the field doing research projects around the world.

She grew up in Malawi, a landlocked southeastern African country enveloped by Mozambique to the east, south and southwest; Tanzania to the northeast; and Zambia to the northwest. It’s a sliver-shaped country of 18 million and is nicknamed the “Warm Heart of Africa” for its friendliness. With an agriculture-based economy, Malawi is one of the least developed countries in Africa with a low life expectancy for its population and a high infant mortality rate. Educational opportunities are limited.

Kayira grew up mostly in the care of her grandparents. She didn’t know her dad and would see her mom mostly only during long school holidays. Kayira had two brothers through her mom’s first marriage and three sisters from her mom’s second marriage. A brother has since died, as has a sister.

“I do not consider my siblings as half-brothers and sisters; rather, I view them as my brothers and sisters because that is my culture,” she says.

Kayira showed scholastic promise from an early age, enough so that her grandparents sent her to boarding school when she was 15.

“It was the first time I left home,” she says about her time from 8th through 12th grade at Mary Mount Secondary School, which was run by nuns. It was an intimidating experience.

“I never believed in my abilities,” she says. “This was a very timid girl. I didn’t think I had what it takes, to have what it takes to succeed. I was never confident. I would answer questions, but I would doubt myself.”

That turned around with the arrival of a Peace Corps volunteer who taught math and Latin at her school. Michael Smyser was an instructor in Kayira’s classes for two years, 9th and 10th grades, from 1982 to 1984, and helped ignite the student’s confidence in her aptitude.

“When I walked into those classes, I shined,” she says. “I felt my insecurities were abated. The way he would encourage us, he showed we shouldn’t doubt ourselves. The way he gave feedback, it was done in such a way as to not downgrade you.

“Believe in who you are,” she says he implored. “I felt empowered. I felt I could believe in myself, that I have what it takes. Just from being in his class. ... I loved math. I loved Latin.”

Smyser wasn’t at the school when Kayira graduated, but by then the now-young woman was, as she says, “unstoppable” and looking for more. She was accepted at the University of Malawi, into one of the university’s constituent colleges — Chancellor College. She says the university system in Malawi only has openings for 1,000 students a year; her admission was proof of her achievements, though she dismisses those by saying, “I was a good test-taker.”

Kayira graduated and worked as a high school biology teacher for three-and-a-half years, and for four years with the Malawi National Examinations Board, which reviews curricula for schools, including technical institutions. But Kayira wanted more education.

Her husband, Kenton, whom she married in 1991, was by then pursuing an advanced degree and had enrolled at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., leaving Kayira and their children in Malawi. He saw opportunities for her at Clark and urged her to enroll and pack up, which she did, bringing their three daughters to Worcester. She attended the school, from 2002-04, earning a master’s degree in environmental science and policy.

With her master’s, she landed a job in Washington, D.C., with the American Society for Microbiology, where she worked as an editor and coordinator of educational resources from 2005 to 2008.

“I was happy. I loved doing what I was doing,” she says. But she wasn’t happy enough, still wanting more for her mind. She was accepted into a doctoral program at the University of Saskatchewan — 2,010 miles from Washington, 9,000 miles from Malawi.

She remembers the quizzical looks she got. Why Saskatchewan? Did she know about Canadian winters? In her mind, she was prepared for the cold. After all, she’d adjusted to Worcester after coming from Malawi, which doesn’t dip much below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, even in its coldest months. How chilly could Canada be, anyway?

The family drove straight to Saskatoon, in December. It took four days. They arrived early in the afternoon. When returning to their car after a couple of hours, they couldn’t open the frozen doors.

“Aha, that’s why people were asking, ‘why are you going to Saskatoon?,’” she says.

Earning her doctorate in environment and sustainability, it wasn’t long until Kayira saw an opening in her field of interest at Antioch. She moved here seven years ago and put into practice mentoring skills she absorbed from her Peace Corps teacher three decades earlier.

“This was meant for me,” Kayira says. “I’m so blessed to have had this opportunity to mentor students that are exploring different topic areas.”

She is working with doctoral candidates who are in such places as Ghana, Mongolia, Tanzania, Rwanda and other countries. The students’ work ranges from studying wolves in Mongolia, to the effects of gold mining in Ghana to the use of solar electricity in poor areas of Africa.

She directs Antioch’s Center for Tropical Ecology and Conservation and has held conferences in Keene, while working with partners from Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Brazil, Rwanda, India and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, says Antioch’s James Gruber, who nominated Kayira for a 2020 Extraordinary Women award and is part of the university’s environmental studies department.

He adds, “She’s extraordinary not only for her commitment to encouraging, supporting and empowering others, but also for her unique and challenging journey to Keene ...”

“I come into my classes not as an expert; I come in as a learner,” Kayira says. “I have something to share. I know a little bit, but I know the students bring in a lot. We are in a co-learning environment. I value their skills and experiences, our learning together. I try to diffuse this hierarchy of power between a teacher and their students. I know a little bit about the courses I teach; I don’t come in as if I know it all.”

Kayira’s work at Antioch has extended beyond mentorship and instruction. She co-directs Community Garden Connections (CGC) with her colleague, Libby McCann.

She says 10 years of CGC’s work has helped build local food capacity and decreased food insecurity in the face of climate change. The effort is assisted by private donations.

“We have facilitated the installation of 68 garden beds at 13 social service agencies,” she says in an email. “In addition to our sites in Keene, we have a one-acre plot in Westmoreland. Run by student volunteers and community members, the Westmoreland Garden Site donates 100 percent of its produce to traditionally underserved and marginalized members of the community by means of the Keene Community Kitchen.”

The effort has resulted in 77 tons of food donated so far.

Kayira is reminded of her childhood by the interview for this story, of her broad experiences that have placed her in the Antioch community and of her students, of course. At the core of her account, however, is that Peace Corps teacher who changed her in ways that could not have been expected — by either of them.

She found Smyser through the help of the U.S. director of the Peace Corps, who came to Antioch a few years ago to complete an agreement between the agency and the university. She decided to reach out.

“They gave me his email address and his phone number,” she recalls of that day about five years ago. “I was shaking. What do I do? Do I email him? Or pick up the phone and try?

“I picked up the phone, I dial the number, rang once, twice, and then he answered,” she says. “Now, what did I do? I start to ramble ... He cut me off. ‘Of course, Jean, I remember you,’” he tells her.

The two, reconnected after 30 years, have corresponded many times since, but it was in one email that Smyser recalled he had something that would be of importance to Kayira, maybe not in the way his Latin and math lessons had inspired her, but significant nonetheless.

It was a photograph — the first of her life.