THIRD-GRADE TEACHER Lynn Slater with Yala Aseto, who started his learning at St. Mary’s in Waterford virtually from Kenya. (Franchesca Caputo photo)
THIRD-GRADE TEACHER Lynn Slater with Yala Aseto, who started his learning at St. Mary’s in Waterford virtually from Kenya. (Franchesca Caputo photo)

This year St. Mary’s School in Waterford is offering virtual classes to all students, even if they are on the other side of the world like 8-year-old Yala Aseto once was.

Aseto’s story actually starts with his mother, Emily Obuya, who came to the United States from Kenya to complete graduate school and later became a chemistry professor at Russell Sage College. Although Aseto was born in the U.S., upon graduating kindergarten, his family decided to immerse him in their culture, sending him to live with Obuya’s brother and sister-in-law, along with Aseto’s cousins, in Kenya.

“I wanted him to have some roots, just to know where he’s from; our roots. Just to have a little bit of experience in Kenya and the language and the culture,” Obuya said.

After completing first and second grade in Kenya, Obuya decided it was time for Aseto to come back, planning for his arrival in July so he would have the summer to get acclimated. Because of the pandemic, however, Kenya’s border was closed until October.

“Luckily … there was this whole virtual thing going on, and I asked (Principal Matt Rucinski), ‘Can he attend virtually?’”

The answer to that question was a resounding yes. So, while Aseto waited for the Kenyan border to re-open, he tuned in virtually every day in September even though he was literally 7,300 miles away. Obuya remembers streaming Aseto’s first day of school and seeing her son clad in a dress shirt and tie, something she says is not uncommon for students in Kenya.

“He was really eager to start school,” Obuya said between laughs.

In the U.S., St. Mary’s students have their first class at 8 a.m. For Aseto, this meant starting school at 3 p.m. and finishing at 7 p.m.

“Seeing the school, the teachers and doing the worksheets at home excited him for the upcoming school year in America,” Obuya said.

While in Kenya, Aseto would often wake up and immediately go out to play with other children in his gated community, fulfilling his social needs.Although his mother said this will be missed, she also points out due to the on-going pandemic, children aren’t playing as usual anyways. While Aseto knows how to speak English, he’s more comfortable speaking Swahili, Kenya’s official national language, and the one he’s been speaking for the last two years.

His mother, translating, said he likes his teachers here — Aseto has been attending classes in person since October — and how excited they are to see him every day.

“That really energizes him and he looks forward to joining his classmates,” Obuya said.

Rucinski said enrollment at the school is up by 20 students compared to last year, something he attributes to having a policy which allows students to learn either virtually or in person.

“I asked (Aseto) what he was really looking forward to most in coming back and he said, ‘Everything, especially school,’ ” Obuya said.