Global alumni profile: Professor Judi Wakhungu

Nathan Rufo
January 19, 2021

This story is part of a series of profiles on Penn State’s international alumni. This series was created for the Global Penn State Newsletter, which includes updates, information, and stories about Penn State’s global activities.

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Penn State alumna Professor Judi Wakhungu, currently Kenya’s ambassador to France, Portugal, Serbia, Monaco and the Holy See, always knew deep down that she would make a great impact on the world. 

“I knew without knowing,” she said. “I didn’t know where the trajectory would take me, and I didn’t know how far it would reach, but somehow I was prepared for it.” 

Much of that preparation came from Professor Wakhungu’s time as a doctoral student and a professor at Penn State. Professor Wakhungu received her doctorate from the University in 1993 and after, became an associate professor of science, technology, and society. She looks back on her time at Penn State as formative. 

Professor Judi Wakhungu giving a talk in Paris.

Professor Judi Wakhungu gives a talk in Paris.

IMAGE: Judi Wakhungu

“Penn State provided the opportunity to achieve and do so much,” she said. Professor Wakhungu still keeps in touch with those who mentored her, as well as those she has mentored herself, to this day. Even though Penn State is a big university, there are still hubs and centers for people to connect, grow and nurture, she said.  

Her most impactful memories came from her time in such hubs, such as her time as a graduate student among a diverse graduate student body. She described the Kern Graduate Building as a “mini-United Nations.” 

“We connected over our research, our geographic origin,” she said. “I still rely on the networks that I created then to this day. It expanded my horizons to think globally.” 

Another such hub was the Women in Science and Engineering Institute, of which Professor Wakhungu served as director. WISE, as it is called, was created as part of a partnership between the colleges of engineering, science, Earth and mineral sciences, agricultural sciences, and information sciences and technology(which was new at the time). 

“It was a wonderful experience because many women lack role models in the STEM fields,” she said. “Penn State provided the opportunity to come together and share challenges, successes, experiences.” All of the women who pass through the institute have gone on to great success in their fields, she said. 

Professor Wakhungu seems a fitting choice to lead an institute focused on trailblazing women, as she herself is a woman of “firsts.” She was the first woman hired as a geologist in the Ministry of Energy and Regional Development in Kenya; she was the first female petroleum geologist to serve in the National Oil Corporation of Kenya; and she was the first woman faculty member at the Department of Geology at the University of Nairobi. 

From 2013 to 2018, she served as Kenya’s minister of environment, water, and natural resources – also the first woman to serve in this capacity. Prior to being appointed as minister, Professor Wakhungu was very vocal and active in Kenyan politics, which she believes got her the job. 

“They sort of looked at me and said, ‘If you’re going to be telling us what to do anyway, you might as well take over’,” she said. “It was a lot of pressure on me, but I am used to being in the pressure cooker.” 

Professor Judi Wakhungu spending time with elephants

"Over break, I spent time with the rhinos and the elephants," Professor Wakhungu said. "It's where I love to be."

IMAGE: Judi Wakhungu

Her task was to modernize Kenya’s environmental policies – not an easy one, especially with pushback from interest groups, corporations and lobbyists. Professor Wakhungu made evidence-based science policy the cornerstone of her agenda, and she credits Penn State for teaching her the skills to navigate turning science into policy. Among her successes were the Climate Change Act, the Water Act, a wildlife protection bill, and finally, a ban on single-used plastic bags in Kenya. 

Professor Wakhungu takes great pride in her time as minister. “It was seminal work," she said plainly. Since the implementation of the single-use plastic bags ban, other countries have come to her and asked how she did it. 

“I tell them, you just need to have a short little woman with a lot of courage,” she said. Professor Wakhungu had to fend off threats from lobbyists while working with the public to raise awareness and working with industries on new and innovative solutions for the public good. 

The idea of the working for the public good is also something that she credits Penn State for. “Penn State taught us to ask ourselves about the impact of our work,” she said. “For me, I am always thinking: how can I influence the government to be more responsible to the public good and put Kenya in a position of African leadership?” With the policies enacted in Kenya, some of which were the first on the African continent (such as the Climate Change Act), Professor Wakhungu catapulted the nation into a leadership role on environmental issues. 

“We live in a dynamic world, where problems are changing all the time,” she said. “It’s important to have modernized and flexible science policy to be able to respond to changing conditions.” 

Professor Judi Wakhungu with Pope Francis.

Professor Judi Wakhungu with Pope Francis.

IMAGE: Judi Wakhungu

After her time as minister, Professor Wakhungu was named Kenya’s ambassador to France, Portugal, Serbia, Monaco and the Holy See. Her work centers around broad issues of trade, peace and security, and environmental issues. French President Emmanuel Macron is highly passionate about issues of the environment, and France and Kenya have a special relationship. 

“French is the most common unofficial language in Kenya,” Professor Wakhungu noted. 

Based out of Paris for her position, Professor Wakhungu sees many Penn Staters on a day-to-day basis. People with Penn State ties work at UNESCO, OECD, and many, many of the universities around the Paris area. 

“Being a Penn Stater means I am in distinguished company,” she said. “I am part of the biggest alumni network in the world. It is a label that I wear and cherish with a lot of pride.” 

A plaque denoting that Professor Judi Wakhungu planted a tree at the U.N. in commemoration of Professor Wangari Maathai's Nobel Peace Prize

A plaque denoting that Professor Judi Wakhungu planted a tree at the U.N. in commemoration of Professor Wangari Maathai's Nobel Peace Prize.

IMAGE: Judi Wakhungu

Professor Wakhungu urges current students to take advantage of the unique and powerful education that Penn State has to offer. 

“[State College] is a little village, but it connects to so much,” she said. “Expand your network. Stay close to your professors who are global leaders in their fields – they will continue to encourage you. Don’t just stay in your bubble or in your department – expand your horizons. Join a club if you can and seek out those with different backgrounds from your own. The person in the room next to you, sitting next to you in class, or who works with you in a club – they might be a global leader someday. Make those connections.” 

Professor Wakhungu had one last piece of advice for Penn Staters: 

“Oh, and go to the Creamery.” 

 

Last Updated January 19, 2021