Augustana alum is 2022 CNN Hero of the Year

Nelly Cheboi reacts as she is named 2022 Hero of the Year.
Nelly Cheboi reacts as she is named 2022 Hero of the Year. Ger nonprofit, TechLit Africa, has provided thousands of students in rural Kenya with access to donated, upcycled computers — and the chance at a brighter future. CREDIT CNN HERO OF THE YEAR

Augustana College alumna Nelly Cheboi was named CNN’s 2022 Hero of the Year on Sunday, Dec. 11, for her TechLit Africa program that seeks to change the world for young people across rural Kenya.

Ms. Cheboi, a 2016 graduate of the Rock Island-based liberal arts college, is the second Quad Citian to be named CNN’s top hero in the annual program. Each year, 10 winners selected by the news organization compete against one another in an online vote. Living Lands & Waters founder Chad Pregracke won the award in 2013. 

In addition to spreading her TechLit Africa message around the world via Sunday’s CNN live broadcast, for winning the top spot this year, Ms. Cheboi will receive $100,000 to expand her work. She and the other top 10 Heroes also will each receive a $10,000 cash award and additional grants, organizational training and support from The Elevate Prize Foundation through a new collaboration with CNN Heroes. Ms. Cheboi also will be named an Elevate Prize winner, which comes with a $300,000 grant and additional support worth $200,000 for her nonprofit.

An overjoyed Ms. Cheboi was joined on stage Sunday by her mother, Christine, for the CNN live broadcast, and the emotional pair sang the song a young Ms. Cheboi had often sung for her hard-working single mother who could barely read and write but worked every day to educate her four daughters.

Her mother would “slave away” by the roadside for decades, she said, and each day she would sing to her to say “my hands are so tiny I cannot help you but when I grow up I’m going to show you the world.”

Showing the world to young people in rural areas of Kenya also the aim of her TechLit Africa program, which redistributes recycled computers to Kenyan schools. She is joined in the effort by her TechLit co-founder, whom Ms. Cheboi also thanked Sunday for leaving a lucrative job in Chicago to come to the African community of Mogotio. Ms. Cheboi’s organization, whose name is short for Technologically Literate Africa, uses recycled computers to create technology labs for students.

In her acceptance speech, Ms. Cheboi also shared her gratitude for Steve Bahls, former Augustana president, and his wife, Jane, for their encouragement while she was at the Rock Island college. 

“Jane and Steve, you took me in. You hoisted me. You helped me so much,” Ms. Cheboi said.

“Nelly is one of the most talented individuals that I have ever come into contact with,” Mr. Bahls told the QCBJ on Monday, Dec. 12. “It is an honor for my wife, Jane Bahls, to serve as chair of the TechLit Africa board and for me to serve as her college president. But most of all, it is a privilege to be her host family in the United States.”

He called Ms. Cheboi a role model who demonstrates that “with determination and hard work dreams can come true.”

He added: “When she received a scholarship at Augustana, she determined that she would use her good fortune to make her rural community better. Through raw determination, she persisted when the skeptics said her dream was too big – but she showed the power of resilience to pursue big dreams. I suspect her good work is only starting!”

Ms. Cheboi made her way to the nationally ranked liberal arts college after growing up in poverty in Mogotio. After excelling in her studies, she won a full scholarship to Augustana. 

When she began her studies there in 2012, she had almost no experience with computers, so she hand wrote her papers and struggled to transcribe them onto a laptop. Everything changed in her junior year, she said, when she took a programming course required for her mathematics major. 

“When I discovered computer science, I just fell in love with it. I knew that this is something that I wanted to do as my career, and also bring it to my community,” she told CNN after she was nominated for the award.

In 2016, Cheboi graduated with a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics and computer science, and in 2021, she earned Augustana’s Richard A. Swanson Humanitarian Award. 

As a junior, in 2015, she took the funds she earned from working campus jobs and built her school, Zawadi, according to an Augustana College news story. That four-story school serves about 300 students on the first floor. It is also the headquarters for TechLit Africa, with room for a literacy center and vocational classes for the community of Mogotio, the college said.

In addition to running TechLit Africa, Ms. Cheboi is a software engineer at Fuzzy, a California-based company focused on pet health care. She was honored as a social impact leader in Forbes magazine’s annual “30 Under 30” list for 2022.

On Sunday, CNN also shared the stories of all 10 winners during this year’s edition of the Peabody and Emmy Award-winning campaign that honors individuals making extraordinary contributions to improve the lives of others.

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