The Women's Institute of Secondary Education and Research—a Kenyan organization for community development that is partnered with Duke—graduated its first class of 28 students from its secondary school March 7.

With a focus on health and education to empower underprivileged girls in Muhuru Bay, Kenya, WISER began in 2006 with a secondary school for women and now includes a primary school, a school garden and community projects to bring clean water and better nutrition to the area. This year's inaugural graduating class marks a major success for the WISER school system, which has never before seen a female student continue onto a university.

“It’s everything," said sophomore Zack Fowler, president of Duke's WISER Club. "It’s the first graduation, so we know now that this can happen, that you can have girls do things that have never been done in the community."

The graduation is a landmark not only for WISER, but for Muhuru Bay. Over the 30 years that Kenya has offered secondary education, only one woman in the Muhuru Bay area has received a qualifying score for university acceptance and enrolled, said Sherryl Broverman, president of the WISER school and associate professor of the practice of biology. By comparison, 17 of WISER's 28 graduates received qualifying scores, and of those, 13 received full scholarships from the government.

Broverman added that the graduates have a wide range of interests, including journalism, engineering and business. One-third of the graduates are interested in healthcare.

"The fact that they graduated from secondary not only affects them, it affects their family, it affects their community," said senior Nupur Gulati, former president of the WISER Club. "It's just this massive ripple effect."

Fowler said greater access to education for women is associated with many benefits for a community—including economic growth, female empowerment, improved male-female relationships and better health outcomes. For example, the daughter of a woman who has completed a secondary education experiences a 50 percent reduction in the lifetime prevalence of HIV, he said.

The graduation ceremony was a community celebration with approximately 1,000 people in attendance, including three members of the Kenyan parliament and six Duke alumni who were involved in the early stages of WISER.

“It was so gratifying to have them with me during the event,” Broverman wrote in an email Sunday.

Broverman is humble about her role in the creation of the school. She wrote that she is an “accidental advocate,” noting that her desire to help girls in Muhuru Bay stemmed from visiting a colleague in the area.

While in Muhuru Bay, Broverman met a child bride who was married to her school's vice principal in order to pay her school fees. Broverman helped this young woman break the marriage but wanted to do more to help other girls facing child marriage, early pregnancy and orphanhood as a result of HIV.

Broverman said she has seen positive change at WISER in her students' health, leadership and education. She also said she saw new power in the students when they performed in a flash mob in three major cities on International Women’s Day last year.

“Girls who…were culturally trained to be very shy and retiring—to sing and dance about the importance of educating them and the need to be seen by the community was really empowering,” Broverman said.

All members of the graduating class passed the Kenyan National Examination for high school students, and their test scores place WISER in the top 5 percent of Kenyan private schools, Broverman noted.

Fowler noted that it is likely that the graduates will reinvest in their community. He said that womens' tendencies to reinvest in their community has been a contributing factor to WISER’s success.

“WISER is as much about community empowerment as it is about…female empowerment,” Fowler said.

He also noted that women’s education is the best strategy for health and development in a community.

“I don’t see it as a girl mission—we’re interested in health and development, and that’s not a gendered discipline,” Broverman wrote.