Editor’s note: School of Public Service student Alicja Feduniec approached the SPS publication with an idea: to regularly highlight strong Chicago-area women who had compelling stories to share. This is the first installment of the feature she calls “BACKBONE: A Look at Noteworthy Women.”
By Alicja Feduniec School of Public Service
When Viola Jobita considers her passion for public service, she reflects on a childhood 8,000 miles away.
And she remembers lessons from a household led by public servants.
“Even though my family was considered better off, my siblings and I grew up in an environment where we saw a lot of poverty,” she said. “My parents were always
taking in relatives who were struggling and instilled in us the need to help.”
Jobita, a native of Kenya, works today as a refugee employment specialist at the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance, and she’s pursuing a degree in International
Her journey includes work in human rights, injustice, development, agriculture and AIDS prevention.
Born in Nairobi, Jobita grew up in Kisumu, a city on Lake Victoria. She attended The Catholic University of Eastern Africa, where she earned degrees in sociology and political science.
Jobita used her undergraduate studies as an opportunity to gain experience in the Kenyan public sector. She interned at the Kenya Bureau of Standards, followed by the Kenya Sugar Board, the Architectural Association of Kenya and the Kenya Human Rights Commission, which led to her first official job.
Her work at the Human Rights Commission coincided with Kenya’s constitutional referendum. She was responsible for carrying out civic education on the new constitution and assisting victims of historical land injustices. She later became involved in the National Taxpayers Association and Center for Government and
Development, where she worked on research on factors affecting school enrollment and attendance.
Before heading to the United States, Jobita worked for the African Council of Religious
Leaders — Religions for Peace
. At the ACRL, she facilitated discussions with faith leaders and community members to promote HIV prevention. The program aimed to collect data regarding people’s beliefs about sexual activity and HIV transmission
and to promote a dialog about the factors that make certain individuals and communities more susceptible to contraction.
She had gained previous experience on HIV/AIDS issues. As an undergraduate, she worked on a USAID funded project in Kenya’s Nyanza province. A project called AIDS, Population, and Health Integrated Assistance, or APHIA II, focused primarily on improving access to reproductive health, family planning and HIV/ AIDS services in Kenya.
Work in this field held a special significance for Jobita, as she suffered the loss of numerous family members to the virus.
All these experiences helped influence Jobita’s decision to enroll at the School of Public Service. But she cites her family and upbringing as the main factors that
have shaped her worldview and desire to help others.
Both of her parents remain public servants in Kenya. They ingrained in her and her siblings an interest in the world as well as the belief that — amid poverty all around her — it was everybody’s responsibility to help those less fortunate.
“We also grew up exposed to world maps and a global perspective,” she said. “These
realities generated an interest in issues of poverty alleviation, empowerment and development.”
Kenya’s government, democratic but mired in corruption and a current election crisis, also had a profound affect on her. She questioned what was going on in her government.
When offered a position with The Heartland Alliance, she said, it made sense for her to accept. Asked about her biggest challenge in her current position, Jobita said:
“It is more a concern than a challenge. Most people that come through the organization lack transferable skills. They have a wealth of life experience but lack
English language skills, especially the elderly. This leaves them with survival jobs — not sustainable employment. I wish I could do more for them. I worry for their future.”
Yet she said she finds her work immensely rewarding. She said she garners hope from “success stories,” or the refugees who were able to create better lives for themselves.
Her organization recently conducted a job panel in which the “star” newcomers to the United States shared with other refugees the experiences they have had in navigating the job search, and they provided tips on how to do it better.
Jobita said she enjoyed seeing the community helping each other. She said it gives her joy and satisfaction to know that she was able to make a difference in someone else’s life.
“It feels good knowing that you helped someone feel better,” she said.
Alicja Feduniec is pursuing an SPS degree in International Public Service.