As a teacher and MLIS student, he's devoted to community

By Jessi Loerch Monday, May 3, 2021

For Maina Gachugu, his path to the iSchool was winding, but it began with his unshakable belief in the importance of an education.

Inspired by his father’s devotion to learning, Gachugu always knew he would go to college, but figuring out what to study was harder. He attended community college while working full time and considering his next steps.

Many of his family members were teachers, but he’d been resistant to the idea for himself. After trying a few different areas of study, none of which were quite right, Gachugu realized that teaching would allow him to nurture his love of learning, while also working closely with people.

After earning his teaching certificate, Gachugu moved to Kent for a job at an elementary school. He fell in love with the multicultural community of his school, where many of his students are refugees and more than 30 languages are spoken.

Gachugu found that outreach to families was a large part of his job. He helped families sign up for email, directed them to free resources for their kids, and pointed them toward information about citizenship. He realized that his passion was truly in community.

“My job is to help my community tap into their infinite potential,” he said.

He wanted to pursue a master’s degree and, after a lot of research and thinking, realized that school librarian would be an ideal position. He was thrilled to discover the iSchool’s online Master of Library and Information Science, which would allow him to keep his job but was nearby so he could use the campus resources.

Gachugu has found his coursework enlightening and challenging. He’s worked with a team, led by Senior Principal Research Scientist Chris Coward and Associate Professor Jin Ha Lee, on efforts to combat misinformation by creating an escape room, and he contributed to a read-in for Black History Month. He struggled with imposter syndrome at first, but these projects and his studies helped him gain confidence.

“The scholarship allowed me to take a huge deep breath. It gave me the gift of time, which is so precious.”

Over time, especially with the pandemic, Gachugu started to worry more about finances. He took extra jobs and considered pausing his studies. Then, however, he was awarded the Genevieve C. Cobb Scholarship for Library and Information Science. His partner, who he says is his rock and he could never have gotten through this without, threw him a celebratory dinner, and they both cried in joy.

“I was so touched and so humbled by the scholarship,” he said. “Working side jobs was exhausting. … The scholarship allowed me to take a huge deep breath. It gave me the gift of time, which is so precious.”

Gachugu said his time at the iSchool has expanded his view of librarianship while also giving him a wider view of the world.

“It really opened my eyes to a lot of things — especially social justice, even with my educational training and growing up as a Black male,” he said. “It was relieving to be part of a program that put that as a priority.”

He’s already bringing what he’s learned into his classroom. And he’s excited to do that even more after he graduates in 2022. While Gachugu still thinks K-12 school librarian would be the ideal position for him, he’s seen other options that fit his interests. He’s particularly intrigued by the idea of working as a community college librarian or doing outreach for a public library.

“Doing outreach, you can harness and leverage the power of the community while also giving them the resources they are seeking,” he said. “As an educator, I direct so many parents to the library. I would love to be on the other side of that recommendation.”

Gachugu is grateful for the iSchool and for the community. He says his cohort is a strong source of support, and that they’re a fierce group of advocates for social justice. He’s also been grateful for professors like Michelle Martin.

“Doc Martin has been such an inspiration for me,” he said. “She really brings culture to the forefront of what we do as librarians. She’s just a shining light. Having her be an advocate for me has been great.”

Martin said Gachugu brings his full self to his iSchool studies and his work. She said that he, as a Black man in education, has an important perspective that will help his students and will allow him to be a leader in his profession.

“Maina is a listener,” she said. “He really listens to what he is hearing from his classmates and from the children in his class, and he really takes it to heart. That will serve him really well as a librarian. … He brings a passion to librarianship that I think will contribute to his success. I also think that some of the struggles he has been through will make him a much more compassionate LIS professional.”