Rwanda native/alumna finds light through darkness

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Each morning as parents drop their children off in the Butterfly Garden room at the Penn State Child Care Center at Hort Woods, 2012 human development and family studies alumna Grace Hakizimana is there to greet them. The preschool teacher smiles at the babies and toddlers as they come through the door. She speaks to them softly. She helps them settle into their favorite activities. She treats them as if they are her own. On the outside, Grace radiates warmth. But on the inside, there is darkness.

When Grace was just 16 years old, her life in her home country of Rwanda was turned upside down. All around her people were murdered in a genocide that would last 100 days and leave 800,000 people dead.

Nine years later, after witnessing unspeakable acts and fearing daily for her life, she was admitted to the United States as a refugee. Alone in a country in which she did not speak or understand the language, she eventually made her way to State College, Pa., where former friends of her parents were living. With Penn State at hand, she decided to pursue her dream of attending college.

When asked about her experience in Rwanda, Grace gives a weak smile and, in so many words, indicates that the horrors she witnessed are unspeakable. She does say that as a young girl in high school, she wanted to be an accountant like her father, so she majored in economics.

Her plans changed.

"Coming from a country where there are so many problems, I felt I wanted to do something for other people as much as I had other people helping me in my life," Grace said.

She decided, instead, to follow in her aunt's footsteps and become a nurse. But that goal was put on hold when her son Yannick — now 7 years old — was born. Now a single mother who was working full time in a day care center and volunteering for Global Connections — an organization that creates opportunities for international students and recent immigrants — she began to spend whatever time she could spare learning to read, write and speak English.

When Yannick was 2 years old, Grace sought assistance from advisers in the College of Health and Human Development in enrolling in Penn State's School of Nursing, but she quickly learned that to earn a degree in nursing she would have to participate in daily clinical experiences in Altoona or Hershey.

"I couldn't do that because I had no one to watch Yannick," she said. "My adviser told me I could help somebody in different ways, and she talked to me about a degree in human development and family studies. I learned I could do so much with human development."

Grace speaks in detail about how much she appreciates the assistance of her advisers in the College of Health and Human Development, especially Diane Leos, Vanessa Wade, Pam Evock and Ro Nwranski.

"What Grace has been through in her life is incomprehensible," Nwranksi said. "Her courage has helped me and others to understand true strength. She and students like her help us to be a better institution."

In 2007, Grace began her course of study in human development and family studies. Along the way, she was awarded a Simmons-Jansma Project Renew Grant from the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The grant was named for Lucretia V. T. Simmons, a past president of the State College AAUW Branch, who, in 1918, was the first woman on the Penn State faculty to become a full professor.

Also during her time as a student, Grace conducted an internship at the Bennett Family Center.

"I love children," she said. "I either wanted to work with children or the elderly in a nursing home. For now this is something that I want to do. But I still have a goal of becoming a nurse."

Grace plans to go back to nursing school when Yannick is old enough to stay home alone. Ultimately, her goal is to work with an organization like Doctors Without Borders.

"I want to work with women and children in Africa, especially in east Africa, where they have so many refugee camps," she said. "I never lived in one, but I have friends who lived in those situations. I feel like I can be a big help, especially as a woman. I feel like women in African society do so much, and in time of civil war, things are not good; most of the time women and children suffer more than men. When you look at Congo right now or Sudan, women are living in bad conditions. They have children to raise, and they don't have anything to feed them. Most of the time they have to go to get the water somewhere, and they end up being raped."

When Grace graduated in May, she was among hundreds of other students who were also experiencing emotions of pride and relief that day. Yet few, perhaps, felt them with the same level of intensity as she did. For Grace, that day was much more than a celebration of the completion of her studies; it was a recognition of her triumph over hardships that most Penn State graduates never have to endure.

Last Updated January 07, 2013