Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, is more than 8,000 miles from Lincoln. For Rwandan students, this makes the decision between staying at home or pursuing a higher education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln nothing short of heart-wrenching.
But a scholarship program through the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources motivates many Rwandan students to span the distance and study agriculture and STEM-related fields.
The Rwandan student population at UNL has increased rapidly over the last few years, following the national trend of more Rwandans attending American universities. Before CASNR created the program, few Rwandans attended UNL.
Sylvana Arians, coordinator of the Rwandan Scholar Program, said there are currently 155 Rwandan students at UNL, making them the third-largest group of international students on campus. This number has grown almost 400 percent in the last five years, from just four students in 2013.
Charlie Foster, the director of the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center and assistant vice chancellor of student affairs, said the program is important because it shares UNL’s knowledge and resources with the rest of the world.
“Many of our ag. programs are trying to be smart about how we share information about food and water around the world,” she said. “That’s a big part of who we are as a campus — learning and sharing from each other.”
Foster also said admitting more Rwandan students to the university gives other students the opportunity to learn from people of different cultural backgrounds and see the world through a new lens.
Although it is difficult to step outside of one’s comfort zone and say hello, she said making friends with people from other backgrounds is an important part of growing as an individual.
Fathia Akamazina, a sophomore integrated science major from Kigali, said life is very different in the United States than at her home.
Akamazina attended an all-girls high school in Kigali before she applied to UNL and received a scholarship. While she was excited to continue her education, she said it was remarkably difficult to leave her friends and family in Rwanda. She remembered how leaving was very emotional for her and her family, but she kept in mind her reason for going.
“You just kind of have to look on the bright side: you’re going to get a good education; you’re going to be safe.” Akamazina said. “But it was kind of scary knowing it’s the last time you’ll see your parents. You’re going to meet new people and have to fit into a new place.”
Acclimating to the climate of American higher education was her biggest challenge upon arrival. She said Rwandan schools covered different material than American high schools, which meant she had to work hard to fill herself in.
Akamazina said it is comforting to have other Rwandans at UNL, as they all have shared experiences. She said she feels at home in the U.S. at her place of worship, Candlewood Church. But few other places or groups make her feel welcome. She encouraged American students to get to know Rwandans by saying hello.
“We’re friendly people,” she said, “We like to know people, and we’re wired to belong.”
This article was originally published in the February 2019 edition of The DN.