Fashion design student close to realizing her dream

May 4, 2015


“I don’t have the money but I have the vision. And I have to believe it’s going to work.”

That’s Mary Mwashighadi talking about her desire to open a fashion design school in Kenya. She grew up there, in Nairobi, and wants to go back and teach sewing to children, particularly those who need a hand up.

“In Kenya people like to wear tailor-made clothes. It’s a big business. If I open a school to train kids to sew very well, I’ll be helping them to become self-reliant.”

Mwashighadi is a student in the fashion design and merchandising program at Johnson County Community College. She and her family moved here from Massachusetts so she could enroll in the program.

“It’s been my dream to open a school in Nairobi and it looks like Johnson County is where my dream will become real. I’m very excited about it,” she said.

Growing up, Mwashighadi liked doing things with her hands. While her classmates played at recess, she was knitting hats and scarfs.

“Before I knew it I was knitting good things. I would give them to my mother to sell them for me. I would use that money to buy my school supplies.”

In high school, Mwashighadi became interested in fashion and sewing clothing. The idea of opening a tailor shop appealed to her.

After high school, however, her parents sent her to a trade school to be trained as a secretary.  And that’s what she became, working in a law firm. Marriage and children followed.

“I told my husband I wanted to revisit this idea of having a small tailoring shop. I didn’t want to keep being a secretary. He was very supportive and we agreed that I could take some shop classes.”

Sewing petticoats at night

After working all day, Mwashighadi would sew petticoats late into the night. During her noon break from work, she would sell them to friends and acquaintances. After she saved up enough money to buy an industrial sewing machine, she opened a small shop and employed one tailor.

“It flourished so fast that I had to find a bigger shop,” she said.

Her husband was so impressed that he arranged financing for more sewing machines. Mwashighadi had 10 tailors working for her by the time she and her family moved to the United States in the early 1990s and settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, where one of her brothers was living.

In Worcester, Mwashighadi earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s of business administration from Anna Maria College.

Searching for a college

All the time, she was researching schools that offered degrees in fashion design.

 “Johnson County came up as the best in price and courses,” she said. “And that’s how we decided to come here.”

Mwashighadi started in the program in spring 2013 and expects to graduate in May with an associate’s degree.

 “I love the program,” she said. “I love the professors. They are a wonderful group.”

Her instructors, in turn, praise her.

“Mary is a devoted student with high integrity for her work,” said Britt Benjamin, assistant professor of fashion merchandising and design.

“With her motivation she is very much capable of doing anything she sets out to do. Since she came to JCCC, starting a school in Africa has been her goal and she hasn’t wavered.”

Professor Joy Rhodes said Mwashighadi has been a delight in the classroom.

“She’s an avid learner and goes above and beyond to soak up as much knowledge as possible. She also goes out of her way to help other students learn. She is a genuinely caring person and I know that she will be successful in her plans. Mary knows that I support her and that I will help her in any way I can to achieve her dreams.

Starting her own school

Mwashighadi already is laying the groundwork to open the school.

A second brother who lives in Nairobi and happens to be a Realtor has been scouting out buildings that would be appropriate.

“We are going to start small,” Mwashighadi said. “He is looking in a part of the city that is booming and safe.”

Mwashighadi intends to split her time, working six months each year at her school in Nairobi and living here the other six months. She is thinking about opening a store here that would sell fabric from Nairobi and perhaps employ a tailor.

Mwashighadi said she has taken a heavy class load every semester and has not taken any breaks.

 “From that you can tell how much I really want to start my school. I want to finish as soon as yesterday.”