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“It is something they can never take away from you – your education” – Alphonsine Imaniraguha Anderson

There is no doubt that the current world we live in is nothing we predicted 2020 would bring. A global pandemic and the epidemic of racism have caused us to look inward at our actions and experiences to process the world around us. It is at times such as these that knowledge and specifically, education, are the most valuable in how we learn to cope, process, and adjust our actions.

Alphonsine Imaniraguha Anderson is one example of how education can transform someone’s life.

Alphonsine (seated left) with her brother Eric, and sisters Alice and Noella

Alphonsine was born in Rwanda, where she attended school and lived with her family. As many children are impacted by their experiences when they are young, Alphonsine’s experience when she was in the 7th grade would change the rest of her life. On April 7th, 1994, the genocide against the minority Tutsi in Rwanda began. However, even being young, Alphonsine says that the events leading to the genocide started way beforehand. She recalls the day she realized that something felt wrong when a young boy her age approached her during class and made a disparaging remark that he would start with her when the killings began. Alphonsine was not quite sure what to make of that, especially because her parents had done everything in their power to shield she and her siblings from the hatred that surrounded them.

When the Hutu president’s plane was shot down as it landed at the airport in Kigali on April 6th, her parents could no longer hide the imminent danger that awaited them. The genocide lasted 100 days, and about a million Tutsi lives had been lost. This staggering number includes her parents and two of her siblings. At only 13, Alphonsine had no choice but to assume the role of a parent to her three surviving siblings as if they were her own children (all of them being younger than 10). Viewing this as her top priority, Alphonsine knew she had to finish school and create new opportunities not only for herself but her entire family.

Alphonsine always did well in school. She recalls fondly her father being proud of her for being a great student. Notably, she did not lose her ability to excel academically after losing her parents. She did so well, in fact, that when she took her placement tests after completing elementary school in Rwanda, Alphonsine received the highest score in her area and was placed into a top high school specializing in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). From then on, Alphonsine focused solely on physics and math. Continuing into college on a full scholarship, she obtained her bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering from the National University of Rwanda, Kigali. Shortly after graduation, Alphonsine received a full scholarship from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Rochester, NY, where she obtained a Master’s degree in Telecom Engineering.

 

Learning half a world away

Alphonsine at her RIT graduation ceremony

Having to move away from her siblings was an entirely new experience for Alphonsine when she came to the United States to finish her education. After arriving, Alphonsine took weeks of courses to improve her English. She already knew how to read and write the language, but was unable to speak it when she first arrived in New York. To remedy some of the cultural gaps and dialogue not taught in her classes, she turned to learning English from American TV shows and entertainment.

Alphonsine humorously describes, “I must have watched all of the romantic comedies from the 1980s to the early 2000s in my first year in the US (both before and during graduate school) to learn how Americans interact and speak.”

She even shares how she knew about Netflix and was using its services before it was popular in America. Notably, Alphonsine was able to truly focus on her school work as her scholarships covered everything from her living expenses to tuition. Looking back at this moment, she describes this time as a blessing because the added pressure of working as a full-time student in higher education can be overwhelming to juggle when pursuing a degree. Yet, for some students, the ability to focusing solely on school is simply not an option.

Recent events resonate

Young people still look to the United States as a place that can open doors to education and opportunity. Universities and graduate programs around the country draw in some of the best and brightest students from around the world. However, the ability for many students to continue their education lay in the hands of the Supreme Court this past June. The recent extension of the Ruling on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) means that children who were brought to the United States when they were younger can still continue to get an education in the United States. This decision not only allowed for DACA recipients to continue their education but to continue to live and work in the United States, freedoms that can often times be taken for granted.

Although Alphonsine is not a DACA recipient, she remarks that her own experience of coming to America to continue her education is something that she deeply appreciates. It is something that can “never be taken away from [me].” The knowledge she has gained is intangible and, therefore, priceless.

In recent months, we’ve also seen that access to education is directly tied to access to technology. The global health pandemic has created barriers to learning for students in the United States, where most had to continue their education online. In Rwanda where Alphonsine’s non-profit, Rising Above the Storms, whose vision is to create a world where every child has the chance at education, love and success, launched a partnership in Rwanda in January 2017 to work with children who are experiencing homelessness, and help them get off and stay off the streets. All of them had returned to school but have had to pause their education entirely, because of the pandemic. Alphonsine states, “many large organizations like UNICEF (an organization whose purpose is to provide medication, safety and education to children around the world) are worried about how [children] in developing countries are being impacted during the global pandemic. The impact this will have on their advancement and development.”

While many students in the United States may begin their school year continuing to their next phase of learning, some will have to repeat lessons. In contrast, others may not be able to continue their education at all. The global pandemic has undeniably revealed the stark contrast of privilege to the reality that many face regarding food and housing insecurity, unemployment, and the ability to continue their education.

More than ever, the way we choose to spend our time and resources counts. Although many of us may be out of the bubble of academics, there is always an opportunity to learn and to continue to educate ourselves. Alphonsine states that in each point in our lives we continue to learn, and this can take many forms. From meeting and getting to know new people, reading books, learning a new skill, or learning to think critically about the world around us – when we look closely enough, we realize that no matter how many degrees we have or positions we hold, learning is a process that never ends.

Alphonsine was a Cisco Community Hero Winner in 2019. Learn more about her journey: