Conny Sidi Kazungu remembers hearing her dad’s voice on the other end of the phone and exhaling. Only minutes earlier, she had heard the blast from her home. Suicide bombers in trucks parked outside the US Embassy in Nairobi had exploded, killing more than 200 people.
Her father had been on assignment taking local journalists to cover the ambassador’s meeting with the Kenyan Minister of Trade in a building adjacent to the embassy. He was injured but alive.
“He just missed being in the place where many of his close friends and colleagues died,” Kazungu said.
Kazungu was 12 years old then. She watched her father, Joseph Kazungu Katana, help families of the dead seek justice. It moved her deeply as she thought about how different her life could have been.
“If he hadn’t survived, I wouldn’t be here,” Kazungu said.
Kazungu is from the small village of Gotani, located on the southeastern coast of Kenya. Her father was the first in the family to attend college, supported by her grandfather, who believed education was the way of getting the family out of poverty. A generation later, Kazungu’s grandmother, who remains in the village, sold cattle to support her granddaughter’s dream of higher education.
The dream took a teenage Kazungu to the United States, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Heidelberg University in 2006 and a master’s in environmental science from Miami University in Ohio in 2011.
On December 12, she took the next step: she received her PhD in political science from UT. Her father traveled from Kenya to celebrate the moment with her.
Kazungu arrived in Knoxville in the summer of 2011. She worked for nearly seven years as an academic advisor in the Haslam College of Business. Outside of work, she volunteered with Bridge Refugee Services and served as a court translator for Rwandan refugee families. She was actively involved with Fellowship Church.
Within a few years, Kazungu felt the pull to reenter the world of international relations. In 2015, she took a diplomacy course with Krista Wiegand, director of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy’s Global Security Program. As a part of the course, students provided analysis and policy recommendations to the US Department of State’s Office of Conflict Stabilization, which trains mediators in international war zones. Kazungu flew to Washington, DC, to represent UT in a presentation to diplomats and government officials.
“It was a really important experience because it made her realize how much she wanted to work in public policy,” said Wiegand, who has served as Kazungu’s advisor since that first semester and will hood her this week.
Kazungu, who moved to Washington in 2018 to continue her research, now hopes to secure a position with a think tank, where she can shed further light on the effect of terrorism in the Horn of Africa.
It’s work she’s uniquely qualified to do, thanks to her deep cultural and political understanding of the Kenyan landscape and how the US works closely with the government to counteract terrorism.
“Conny is not only well trained and knowledgeable about conflict, security, and counter-terrorism, but she is very passionate,” Wiegand said. “For a student whose father was directly impacted by terrorism to come study counter-terrorism by the US in her home country—there’s such a direct connection.”
“I wanted to honor my dad’s work while also using policy to combat this monster that took so many lives in Kenya and Tanzania,” Kazungu said.
Since moving to Washington, Kazungu has become active with the Women in Foreign Policy group after being introduced by a mentor, Karen Monaghan, a retired senior foreign intelligence officer for the CIA. During the course of her dissertation, she also found mentorship from William Bellamy, former US ambassador to Kenya, and had the opportunity to discuss her research with retired US Army General David Petraeus at an event organized by the Institute for the Study of War.
To this day, Kazungu, her sister, and her father are the only three people from Gotani to graduate from college. Her sister runs Spread the Love, a charity helping girls in her family’s village to attend high school. Kazungu has volunteered with the charity for the past seven years.
“It’s a way to give back to our community so girls can have the access to education my sister and I benefited from throughout our lives,” Kazungu said.
Kazungu’s father is retired. Her younger brother is studying public health at Miami University. And all of the family’s efforts are tied to giving back and underlined by a simple message: through education, you can change your life forever.
“I am a legacy—a vision that started with my grandfather now coming true,” Kazungu said.
This fall, the university awarded 1,191 undergraduate degrees, 1,171 graduate degrees and certificates, and one law degree. UT’s graduate hooding was held at 4:30 p.m. December 12 and undergraduate commencement at 9 a.m. December 13, both in Thompson-Boling Arena. See the commencement website for details.
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, email@example.com)