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From Kigali to Walla Walla: Whitman’s first Rwandan student shares her experience

By Gillian Frew '11

Charlotte Mugisha
Charlotte Mugisha ’16

Whittie Q&A is a series of student profiles designed to share a glimpse into the lives of Whitman students. While all Whitties share the experience of the college’s focus on academic rigor and excellence, their backgrounds and interests are wide and varied. This series provides a snapshot of the lives of students all across campus.

Charlotte Mugisha ’16 traveled a long way to get to Whitman – 23,723 miles, to be exact. She is Whitman’s first international student from Rwanda, and one of only four young women from that country selected for prestigious scholarships through the Open a Door Foundation. Fifty students applied for these scholarships, each of which is worth about $225,000 and provides tuition aid for attending U.S. colleges and universities.

Mugisha’s selection made headlines: when the winners were announced, the popular news service AllAfrica.com published a story about her and her fellow recipients.

Mugisha grew up in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, where she lived with her uncle and his family. Later she attended the French-English Lycée de Kigali in the Nyarugenge district of Kigali, and received a perfect score (55/55) on her national exams in history, economics and geography, the equivalent of a 4.0 GPA in the U.S. She hopes to pursue a degree in gender studies or economics.

Why did you choose Whitman?
I chose Whitman because it is one of the best liberal arts colleges in the U.S., and I felt it would be a privilege to attend school here. I was looking for a school where I wouldn’t get bored, a place where I would learn new things and have new experiences, make good friends and also get good grades. After my admission interview with [Associate Director of Admission] Joshua Smith, I knew that Whitman was the best place for me to find all these things. 

You're the first international student to come to Whitman from Rwanda. What has that experience been like?
I heard that I’m the first student to come to Whitman from Rwanda, and I feel so glad, happy and blessed to have gotten this opportunity out of the many girls who wanted it just as much as I did. It was a very intense competition for these scholarships. There were 50 girls from all parts of Rwanda who all wanted this very badly. Honestly, I never thought I would ever be among the last four girls who won scholarships to come and study in the U.S. I’m just so grateful that all the hard work I put into this paid off.

Being the first person from Rwanda to come to Whitman, I feel a lot of pressure, the reason being that people have high expectations of me, which is a good thing but not always easy. The organization that helped me to come to the U.S. from my country was all over the news, so sometimes I get a scared feeling within me that I don’t want to fail at anything because this is going to cause a negative impact to all these people who have played a big part in my life.

What do you think of Walla Walla compared to Kigali?
Walla Walla and Kigali are two very different cities.  Kigali is still a developing city so a lot of things are still in the works, unlike in Walla Walla which is more established and developed.

Things here are so fast, it’s amazing. I’ve never in my life been in a place were every person is so fast in thinking and in working or in everything they do. In Kigali people are fast, but not so fast compared to Whitman.

How has your experience at Whitman been so far? What classes are you taking?
I love Whitman. It’s a beautiful place with good people, and it’s the perfect environment for me to study. I’m still learning a lot of new things, but I believe we all learn every day. I’m taking micro economics, financial accounting, astronomy, piano and Encounters.

Do you feel like you have a good support system in place?
Yes. I have a Friendship family and an Open a Door mentor. They have been very helpful. I really like them; they are good people.

What has surprised you the most about Whitman?
I’ve been surprised in a good way in getting to learn about other people’s countries and cultures here. Cultures are so different from country to country, but what makes it special is that we are all the same in many ways, no matter where everyone comes from.

What's the hardest part of adjusting to college life in another country?
The most difficult part of attending college in another country is missing home, and also speaking a language that you’re not used to speaking all of the time. English is not my first language. I don’t understand some of the English words or terms, which has made me unable to talk to as many people as I would like, and sometimes I’m not able to say the right words.

What's your favorite part of Whitman so far? 
Meeting new people, making friends, and getting help when I need it. There are a lot of people willing to help at Whitman.

Published on Oct 9, 2012
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