Commencement 2014: URI senior graduating with chemical engineering and chemistry degrees achieves the American dream: a college education

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KINGSTON, R.I. – April 17, 2014 – On the sidelines of a poultry plant during third shift in 2005, a smug supervisor told Charles Rushimisha he would be aligning chicken on a conveyor belt earning minimum wage for the rest of his life. Moving up in America, the manager said, required a college degree that Rushimisha would never hold. After all, the young man just emigrated from Rwanda, barely spoke English, lacked money and had no family support.

Rushimisha initially offended, took it as a challenge. Nine years later, he is poised to graduate from the University of Rhode Island with a dual degree in chemical engineering and chemistry. He’ll become the first in his family to earn a college degree and will likely graduate magna cum laude among the top of his class.

“Anybody can do it,” says Rushimisha, of Narragansett. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or your story.”

Rushimisha grew up in Congo and Rwanda shifting among family members after his parents died in the 1994 Rwandan genocide that cost more than 500,000 lives. Growing up, he had no childhood home and no playground where memories were forged. Nonetheless, Rushimisha excelled in math and physics during high school and friends encouraged him to become a teacher. They called it the responsible path to take, to give back to other African children.

But Rushimisha never took to the idea of teaching. While mulling his options, he stopped in a library and picked up an English language magazine in an effort to learn the language. He overheard a young man telling his parents about applying for a visa to attend college in America.

“I used to hear about America and see it on TV but I didn’t see myself there. I didn’t see how I could end up there,” Rushimisha says. “Then I heard this guy and in my mind I was like, ‘this is doable.’ ”

He did some research and headed to the U.S. consulate. A staffer took a liking to him, approved his visa and encouraged him to settle in her native Maine with its relatively small community and friendly population. Rushimisha landed in the United States at Dulles International Airport on Nov. 7, 2005 with little more than the clothes on his back. He lived in a Portland shelter for a few weeks before connecting with other African emigrants and finding a job at Barber Foods.

At Barber Foods, he saw supervisors making more than twice his wage for work with less physical labor. The manager’s comments about college inspired him to enroll in classes at the University of Southern Maine. To pay the bills, he took a second job helping mentally challenged children, which he calls the most humbling experience in his life. Encouraged by a professor, Rushimisha started looking for colleges that offered chemical engineering, something not available at his current school.

He found the University of Rhode Island online and was attracted by its modest enrollment and the region’s weather.

“It’s a small enough community to get noticed but it’s big enough for you to acquire the skills you need,” he says.

Making the transition was initially difficult. In Maine, Rushimisha had been sending home much of his income. During his first semester at URI he couldn’t afford textbooks and borrowed them from classmates. He eventually connected with the University’s Talent Development Program, the College of Engineering’s Minority Outreach Office and others who matched him with financial aid and on-campus jobs. He now owns his textbooks, lives in an apartment and enjoys the occasional night out or Sunday watching football with friends.

His academic success has captured the attention of URI. He recently received the Saint Elmo Brady Award for Outstanding Achievement in Science during the annual Black Scholar Awards ceremony. He also received the University’s Jerry and Evelyn Rhoads Memorial Scholarship and the Gray Family Scholarship.

“You have no idea what this community did for me,” Rushimisha says. “What I got from people here is a gift I am going to cherish forever.”

That gift Rushimisha hopes to leverage into acceptance at graduate school and then a career as a petroleum engineer. Ultimately, Rushimisha wants to spend a decade or so in the United States earning money and then return to central Africa to start his own business tapping oil from recently discovered oil fields. The economic impact from developing an oil industry could dramatically reshape the region still recovering from more than a decade of war.

“I love America. I would die for America but I don’t think America needs me as much as Congo and Rwanda,” Rushimisha says. “Those countries, that’s where there is need.”

Photo above: Charles Rushimisha, of Narragansett, a senior who is graduating in May with a dual degree in chemical engineering and chemistry.

Photo by Chris Barrett, a writer for the College of Engineering at URI. Barrett also wrote the release.