Tuition was due. The rent was, too. So Mary Mbugua, a university student in Nyeri, Kenya, went out in search of a job. At first, she tried selling insurance policies, but that only paid on commission and she never sold one. Then she sat behind the reception desk at a hotel, but it ran into financial trouble.
Finally, a friend offered to help her break into “academic writing”, a lucrative industry in Kenya that involves doing school assignments online for college students in the United States, Britain and Australia.
Ms Mbugua felt conflicted.
“This is cheating,” she said. “But do you have a choice? We have to make money. We have to make a living.”
Although such businesses have existed for more than a decade, experts say demand has grown in recent years as the sites have become more sophisticated, with customer service hotlines and money-back guarantees.
The result? Millions of essays ordered annually in a vast, worldwide industry that provides enough income for some writers to make it a full-time job.
The essay-for-hire industry has expanded significantly in developing countries with many English speakers, fast internet connections and more college graduates than jobs, especially Kenya, India and Ukraine.
After a month of training, Ms Mbugua began producing essays about everything from whether humans should colonise space (“it is not worth the struggle”, she wrote) to euthanasia (it amounts to taking “the place of God”, she wrote).
During her best month, she earned $320 (£260), more money than she had ever made in her life.
The New York Times is identifying Ms Mbugua by only part of her name because she feared that the attention would prevent her from getting future work.
It is not clear how widely sites for paid-to-order essays, known as “contract cheating” in higher education circles, are used.
A 2005 study of students in North America found that 7 per cent of undergraduates admitted to turning in papers written by someone else, while 3 per cent admitted to obtaining essays from essay mills.
Cath Ellis, a leading researcher on the topic, said millions of essays are ordered online every year worldwide.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Tricia Bertram Gallant, director of the academic integrity office at the University of California, San Diego. “If we don’t do anything about it, we will turn every accredited university into a diploma mill.”
When such websites first emerged over a decade ago, they featured veiled references to tutoring and editing services, said Bertram Gallant, who also is a board member of the International Centre for Academic Integrity, which has worked to highlight the danger of contract cheating. Now the sites are blatant.
“No matter what kind of academic paper you need, it is simple and secure to hire an essay writer for a price you can afford,” promises EssayShark.com. “Save more time for yourself.”
In an email, EssayShark’s public relations department said the company did not consider its services to be cheating, and that it warned students the essays are for “research and reference purposes only” and are not to be passed off as a student’s own work.
“We do not condone, encourage or knowingly take part in plagiarism or any other acts of academic fraud,” it said.
A major scandal involving contract cheating in Australia caused university officials there to try to crack down on the practice.
A similar effort to confront the industry has emerged in Britain, but not in the United States.
Still, in some of the assignments that Ms Mbugua provided to the Times, names of colleges that the essays were meant for became clear. One assignment asked students to write about a solution to a community problem, and the essay Ms Mbugua provided described difficulties with parking around Arizona State University. “Students could always just buck up and take the walk,” the paper said.
Bret Hovell, a spokesman for Arizona State University, said the school was not able to determine whether the essay had been turned in.
In Kenya, a country with a per capita annual income of about $1,700 (£1,400), successful writers can earn as much as $2,000 (£1,600) a month, according to Roynorris Ndiritu, who said he has thrived while writing academic essays for others.
Mr Ndiritu graduated with a degree in civil engineering and still calls that his “passion”. But after years of applying unsuccessfully for jobs, he began writing for others full time.
He has earned enough to buy a car and a piece of land, but it has left him jaded about the promises he heard when he was young about the opportunities that would come from studying hard in college.
“You can even get the highest level of education, and still, you might not get that job,” he said.
In interviews with people in Kenya who said they had worked in contract cheating, many said they did not view the practice as unethical.
As more foreign writers have joined the industry, some sites have begun to advertise their American ties, in a strange twist on globalidation and outsourcing. One site lists “bringing jobs back to America” as a key goal.
Ms Mbugua, the Kenyan university student, worked for as little as $4 (£3.26) a page. She said she began carrying a notebook, jotting down vocabulary words she encountered in movies and novels to make her essays more valuable.
She lost her mother to diabetes in 2001, when she was in the second grade. She vowed to excel in school so that she would one day be able to support her younger brother and sister.
But Ms Mbugua said she loved learning, and sometimes wished that she were the one enrolled in the American universities she was writing papers for.
Eventually, Ms Mbugua said, she decided to strike out on her own, and bought an account from an established writer with UvoCorp. But UvoCorp forbids such transfers, and Ms Mbugua said the account she had purchased was shut down.
Now she finds herself at a crossroads, unsure of what to do next. She graduated from her university in 2018 and has sent her CV to dozens of employers. Lately she has been selling kitchen utensils.
Ms Mbugua said she never felt right about the writing she did in the names of American students and others.
“I’ve always had somehow a guilty conscience,” she said.
“People say the education system in the US, UK and other countries is on a top notch,” she said. “I wouldn’t say those students are better than us,” she said. “We have studied. We have done the assignments.”