Ven Ochaya earned a bachelor of Science in chemistry from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas in 1982; a Master of Science in chemistry from the University of Texas in 1985; a Ph.D. in chemistry/polymer science from the University of Massachusetts in 1993; and an M.B.A. from Xavier in 2002.
He is now manager of new product innovation for International Paper in Cincinnati, overseeing a $1.2 billion division with operations in 50 locations internationally.
Traumatic Beginnings | Raised in Uganda, Ochaya moved around while his father was an army officer under former President Idi Amin. When his father began criticizing Amin, the family was placed under surveillance and would practice hiding in secret rooms in fear of the house being invaded by Amin’s police force. In 1977, it was. His father was taken away at 3:30 a.m. Days later, his body was found in a nearby swamp.
Great Escape | Two years later, Ochaya’s mother insisted he leave the country because the police were following him. Under cover of a monsoon, he hopped a train, arriving weeks later at the Kenyan border. He couldn’t get past border guards until an old woman helped him across by claiming him as her grandson. He regrets that he never learned her name. He took a bus to Nairobi, where he was helped by friends of his high school basketball coach.
Culture Shock | With a basketball scholarship to the University of Chicago, he arrived in America on Christmas Eve 1979. It was 20 degrees below zero. He lasted a week before the coach’s parents took him to Alabama to thaw out. He refused to return. Instead, he called the president of St. Edward’s University and talked his way into an entrance test. He attended initially with financial help from his host family, immediately earned a scholarship and graduated in three years.
Family Matters | He only received letters and pictures from his family when his high school coach visited America every three years. Though it’s been 23 years since his escape, he still feels it’s unsafe to return. He’s seen his brother, a professional basketball player in Canada, three times and now e-mails his mother.
Never Look Back | “I’m one of the fortunate ones. A lot of people in my position never had the opportunity. The turning point for me was when my dad was killed. Until then, I was just a happy-go-lucky kid. Then I became a very focused individual. Did I do the right thing? I think so, because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be here today. In the end, I think Amin lost because he was never happy and felt he had to kill all those people. But he didn’t stop my family.”