Born when his mother was traveling, he was named “Mugyenzi,” or traveler. So far Mugyenzi Innocent ’13 is fulfilling the promise of his moniker beyond anyone’s expectations.
As a boy he fled Rwanda in 1994, and his family lived in refugee settlements in Uganda. Selected from among some 10,000 eligible peers in the settlement to attend United World College, he went to Wales for two years at College of the Atlantic UWC. This fall he arrived at Colby.
Innocent and Jean-Jacques Ndayisenga ’13, from Kigali, are Colby’s first Rwandan students. Their classmate Vichetrath Meas ’13 (who goes by Rath) is Colby’s first student from Cambodia. All three are Davis United World College scholars, and all were highlighted as the first representatives of their countries this fall.
All three students talked about the challenges and excitement of adjusting to America, Maine, and Colby, and about events that define perspectives of their home countries—genocide.
Innocent said his family fled from the city to a small village in April 1994. When the violence spread to the countryside and it was clear his father, a Tutsi, was in peril, they left the country. Innocent would be separated from his father for two years.
Last summer he returned to Kigali for the first time on a service trip he designed, and he took 16 UWC classmates with him to volunteer at an orphanage. While impressed and even optimistic for Rwanda given the changes he witnessed there, he was very concerned about the orphans. “They are, basically, I would say, hopeless,” he said. It took time living with them to gain their trust, but the children slowly began to engage with the UWC students.
Innocent said he told them, “I was worse off than they are. I had lived in a refugee settlement all my life. I had no rights. I had no national identity.”
“They couldn’t believe me at the beginning,” he said. But they saw what he had achieved, going to school in Wales and soon to college in the United States, and they began to open up. “It was very exciting.”
Meas grew up in a small town far from the capital of Cambodia and says his parents were very supportive when he applied to the UWC and subsequently spent two years studying in Norway.
Of his father Meas said, “He’s really a role model for me. He sacrificed everything for his family.” That began with responsibility for siblings at age 17, when they all became orphaned. A conscientious objector during the conflict in Cambodia, Meas’s father was forced to work without food but was able to keep his family alive because of his agricultural skills. Meas’s mother lost several immediate family members in the genocide, which is still a huge cloud over the national consciousness. “What can I do to help out with this problem in my country?” is one of Meas’s guiding questions, he said. Doing research into Cambodian history at the UWC was part of the answer, he said. “Many Cambodians don’t bother to find out.”
Ndayisenga said was taught the value of education by his father, who passed away 10 years ago. He credited an older brother, Cyriaque, who quit the university in order to put Jean-Jacques and his siblings through secondary school. Cyriaque Ndayisenga has since returned to complete his own degree. Now Ndayisenga is expected to contribute to help his family as well. “It’s a lot,” he said, layering obligations to family on top of the academic demands of life at Colby.
The three new students from the tropics spent first semester adjusting to a new country, campus, and climate. Having grown up virtually on the equator, Innocent viewed the looming winter with trepidation. In mid-October (temperatures were beginning to flirt with freezing) he sucked in his breath and told of the challenge of getting from his job in the Physical Plant Department to his dorm on the other end of campus.
When his shift ended one brisk autumn day, he stepped outside the office—and immediately went back in. Asked if everything was okay, he said “Yes,” then summoned his courage and began jogging across campus to minimize time in the (relative) cold. On the library steps he met his advisor, Associate Dean of Students Susan McDougal, who tried to engage him in conversation. “But I just kept going,” Innocent recalled. He trotted by and said to McDougal, “I will call you.”
And so he did, as soon as he was safely indoors at Foss.