November 14, 1996 - Binghamton University: Joseph Sylvanovich's Peace Corps' assignment took him to St. Paul's Amukura in the Busia district of western Kenya before his death

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Kenya: The Peace Corps in Kenya: November 14, 1996 - Binghamton University: Joseph Sylvanovich's Peace Corps' assignment took him to St. Paul's Amukura in the Busia district of western Kenya before his death

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Joseph Sylvanovich's Peace Corps' assignment took him to St. Paul's Amukura in the Busia district of western Kenya before his death

Joseph Sylvanovich's Peace Corps' assignment took him to St. Paul's Amukura in the Busia district of western Kenya before his death

Mentor's influence spans two continents
Path to BU trail of coincidence

By Susan Barker

On the face of it, Kenyan doctoral student Joseph R. Alila ended up in Binghamton as the result of a sometimes incredible series of coincidences spanning more than two de cades, two continents, eight time zones and 8,000 miles.

Alila believes, however, that he might have been led here by the spirit of a Peace Corps volunteer and former Binghamton University student who died in Kenya in the early 1980s.

Alila says he has felt for some time that his contact with an American mentorJo seph Syl-vanovich, MS '72changed the course of his life.

Still, it wasn't until a few months ago that Alila began to realize how deeply and inalterably woven into the fabric of his own life was his link to Sylvanovich.

Sylvanovich, a Pennsylvania native, studied chemistry at Binghamton with Professor Emeritus Stanley K. Madan from the fall of 1969 through the completion of his thesis in the spring of 1972, Madan said.

Sylvanovich had transferred to Binghamton from Kent State, after witnessing as a graduate student the infamous Kent State shootings, Madan said.

"After that, he just didn't want to stay there," Madan said.

Sylvanovich was a gifted student. He won a National Science Foundation award while at the University, published two papers and performed admirably in his position as a teaching assistant, Madan said.

"His contribution was elegant," Madan said.

When Sylvanovich joined the Peace Corps and left to teach chemistry in Kenya rather than going on for his doctorate, however, Madan wasn't really surprised.

"He was a good teacher, and I had a feeling he was a man who wanted to do all he could," Madan said. "He had that 'mission' feeling about him."

Sylvanovich's Peace Corps' assignment took him to St. Paul's Amukura in the Busia district of western Kenya. During the first two years Sylvanovich taught there, the school, which was within walking distance of the Ugandan border, enjoyed a burgeoning of its reputation in the sciences, Alila said. Alila thinks that was due to Sylvanovich's effective teaching.

In May 1976, drawn by St. Paul's excellent reputation, Alila, a young student with an already keen interest in the sciences, opted along with some friends to leave a repu table school in his hometown of Homa Bay near the Tanzania border to enroll at St. Paul's Amukura.

When Alila arrived at St. Paul's, however, he was disappointed to learn that the school was temporarily without a chemistry teacher, he said.

"When we got there we heard: 'There used to be an excellent teacher here. His name was Sylvanovich. He went back to the U.S., but he is coming back,'" Alila recalled.

Sylvanovich, meanwhile, had returned to the U.S. where he had no luck finding a job, Madan said.

"It was during hard economic times," he said. "And Sylvanovich eventually accepted a standing offer from St. Paul's to return to Kenya and teach."

That was one of the most fortunate days in Alila's life, he said.

"Sylvanovich returned in January of 1977, and I studied with him until December of that year," Alila said. "We had not been taught properly in his absence. In the one year he was there, we learned two years of course work."

Alila credits the success of Sylvanovich's students to his mentor's teaching tech niques.

"He was a very methodological, very organized teacher," he said. "When you entered his lab, you knew you were in a science laboratory."

Kenyan students were required to take a demanding practical chemistry exam in order to graduate, Alila said.

"I remember the practical exam was supposed to take three hours," he said. "Be cause of Sylvanovich's teaching, I was walking out in an hour and a half. I earned a Dis tinction I, the equivalent of an A+."

Of the 40 students in Alila's class, in fact, 10 got A's or higher.

"I would say he made me the chemist I am today," Alila said of Sylvanovich.

That, according to Madan, is no small statement.

"He (Alila) is a brilliant fellow," Madan said.

After his graduation from St. Paul's, Alila moved on in 1978 to Kenyata University. He married in 1979 and earned his bachelor's in education in 1981, graduating from Kenyata with first-class honors in chemistry, math and education.

In 1981, Alila accepted a job in Asumbi, Kenya teaching high school chemistry. "Somehow they didn't have a teacher," he said. "It was my storySylvanovich's story all over again."

By default, Alila became the head of the Asumbi chemistry department and began a successful fight to modernize the science laboratory after the fashion he learned from Sylvanovich, he said.

Alila later returned to Kenyata University for his master's in chemistry and education, spent several years training chemistry teachers at Moi Diploma College, an institution he equates to an American community college, and in 1989 began teaching at Egerton Col lege, where he retains a faculty affiliation. During these years, he heard that Sylvanovich had died. The circumstances surrounding the death were unclear, Alila said.

In 1993, with the blessing of his wife and five daughters, Alila left Kenya to attend the University of Alberta in Canada. He transferred to Binghamton in 1995 knowing only that the University has an excellent reputation and with no idea of Sylvanovich's connec tion to the University, he said.

"I don't know whether it's mere coincidence though because I applied very many places, and I am here," he said.

Since arriving in Binghamton, Alila has directly or indirectly influenced the decision of at least four other Kenyan students to attend Binghamton.

One of those students, Frederick Owuor, who studied under Alila at Egerton, discov ered the connection between Sylvanovich and the University during a talk with Madan, Alila said. Alila said he was speechless when he first learned that his mentor studied here.

"When I think of my historical connection to Sylvanovich, "I don't think it's an acci dent that I am here. I think maybe his spirit brought me here, and I am proud."

Upon the completion of his studies at the University, Alila hopes to return to Kenya and continue the tradition of excellence in teaching that Sylvanovich introduced him to, he said.
Peace Corps service a strong BU tradition

Binghamton University students have a strong tradition of service in the Peace Corps, despite popular stereotypes that often portray college students as self-centered and materialistic, said Barbara Friedman, director of the Career Development Center.

Since 1988, 62 Binghamton graduates have served or are serving as Peace Corps volunteers.

Alumni volunteers are currently working in Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, Tonga, Hungary, Thailand and Chile. The names of individuals who have accepted Peace Corps assignments are protected by the Privacy Act. The assignment areas of currently active alumni volunteers are not.

Binghamton alumni are working in environmental education, science education, En glish education and crop extension in the countries cited earlier, according to a Peace Corps report.

So far this year, 16 students have been nominated for new volunteer positions by the Peace Corps' New York regional office. Six recent graduates are currently in training to become volunteers.

Peace Corps representatives annually come to campus to talk to students about ser vice opportunities.

Some postings on Peace Corps Online are provided to the individual members of this group without permission of the copyright owner for the non-profit purposes of criticism, comment, education, scholarship, and research under the "Fair Use" provisions of U.S. Government copyright laws and they may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner. Peace Corps Online does not vouch for the accuracy of the content of the postings, which is the sole responsibility of the copyright holder.

Story Source: Binghamton University

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Kenya; Obituaries; Stories - Kenya



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