Rwandan student fulfills dream of earning college degree

Photo of Enatha Ntirandekura by Ben Krain.

When Enatha Ntirandekura was a little girl growing up in Rwanda, she would have been happy to finish her high school education. The chance to go to college, and later graduate school, seemed wholly out of reach. 

Ntirandekura was accepted to Gashora Girls Academy, a secondary school that empowers girls with the training and leadership skills they need to make a lasting impact on their world.

After she scored high enough on her standardized science tests, she earned the Rwandan Government Presidential Scholarship, which allowed her to come to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“I never used to think about going to college,” she said. “After high school back home, we normally take the standardized tests in science. If you do well enough, they give you a scholarship. I never thought I could score high enough to come here. I was the first person in my family to go to high school and college. For me, dreaming about college was never there. All of a sudden, I ended up landing the scholarship that I never expected and here I am.”

She will graduate May 12 with a Bachelor of Science in biology and a minor in psychology.

Life in Rwanda, where she left behind her parents, nine siblings, and around 25 nieces and nephews, was quite different than living in the United States.

“I remember when I came here, I was so lost, and the accent was so different. It was so hard being away from my parents and siblings. In Rwanda, we walk three or four hours to get to the market. Everyone drives everywhere here. Sometimes, I just want to get out of the car and walk,” she said. “There is just so much of everything here. The language, the food, the way everyone is moving so fast – that is not what I was used to back home.”

She arrived in the U.S. in May 2014 and took three months of English-language classes at Hendrix College before starting at UA Little Rock in the fall 2014 semester.

“Thank you to Cicero’s family in Conway, who let me stay with them and their three beautiful kids as I was taking the English classes. And thank you to all the other American families and friends that have opened their homes to me during my stay in the USA,” she said.

While at UA Little Rock, Ntirandekura has served as president of the Rwandan Student Association and was a member of the Campus Garden Club. She received the UALRworks Perseverance Award and was on the Chancellor’s List and Dean’s List. As a part of UALRworks, she has worked in Student Affairs and Testing Services.

“I love UALRworks,” Ntirandekura said. “It has been a great experience. It gives you the opportunity to be exposed to professional study, and it gave me the courage to keep going. This is one of the most amazing experiences about this school.”

In the fall, Ntirandekura will begin the applied science Ph.D. program with an emphasis on applied biosciences at UA Little Rock. She eventually wants to research genetic disorders after a personal health discovery.

“Last year, I kept getting sick,” she said. “I kept going to the doctor, and they would say nothing is wrong.”

Ntirandekura was later diagnosed with anemia and sickle cell trait, a relatively mild condition caused by the presence of a single gene for sickle cell anemia.

“I’m from Rwanda, and most parents, when their children are born, they do not think to check for genetic disorders,” she said. “Because I have sickle cell trait, I am a carrier, and my children are more likely to have sickle cell anemia. I want to help other people know what genetic diseases they are susceptible to.”

Ntirandekura had a chance to get some first-hand experience in the lab when she researched Alzheimer’s disease while doing a summer internship in 2016 at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

She is thankful to Dr. Scott Woolbright from the Department of Biology and her other professors for making her experience as an international student better.

“Being an international student in a new country is challenging, but having those professors who are willing to understand and keep pushing is amazing,” she said. “That relationship you develop with professors and coworkers is something I will always remember about this school. That is just so amazing.”

Ntirandekura’s journey to graduation has also been filmed by her high school. Ntirandekura is one of the first students from the Gashora Girls Academy to come to the United States and graduate from college.

Since she arrived in the U.S., she has served as an advocate to help raise money for the Rwanda Girls Initiative, which runs the Gashora Girls Academy. Ntirandekura wants to give other girls from her country the same opportunity to get a college education.

“If I didn’t finish school, I would have just ended up working in the fields. My mom pushed me to finish school,” Ntirandekura said. “Through the failures and challenges, we always have someone who pushes us. I think the person who pushed me the most is my mom. My mom was always willing to give me what she never had. My mom didn’t have much education. I will always attribute my success to my mom who has always worked to given me what she couldn’t have.”

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