Barb asked me to be a mentor in 2011. I took a month to decide but soon realized my excitement to make a new friend and connect with another culture was greater than my concern that I didn’t have previous experience supporting a scholar navigating the college application process.
Charlotte and I began corresponding that fall. While the process of applying to schools was busier than anticipated, the depth of the connection we felt was a complete joy! Barb is an excellent ‘match maker’.
I remember the phone call when Joshua Smith at Whitman College confirmed Charlotte had been awarded a full-scholarship. My eyes were filled with tears and my nose running. Joshua said it gave him such joy to tell Charlotte ‘yes’. I still feel a state of grace and deep gratitude when I think of this experience and truly now believe that anything is possible.
I love Charlotte deeply. She inspires me! I often ask myself ‘What would Charlotte do?’ when faced with a challenge. She courageously leads with her heart. Although sometimes scared, she keeps moving ahead and making good things happen all around her. We also have lots of fun ~ we talk about fashion, food, favorite books along with bigger conversations about how we want to be in the world. I feel blessed to have such a sweet, wise young woman in my life and to have the gift of watching her blossom and grow.
Over these past two years, I’ve learned that we don’t mentor alone. My husband, Don, is an amazing helpmate. He and Charlotte have a wonderful friendship, too. My fellow mentors Diana and Carol, have given Charlotte the gifts of their time, assistance and love and continue to touch my heart and fill me with gratitude. And my network of friends and family are building their own relationships with Charlotte, deepening everyone’s understanding that we are all connected whether we live in Rwanda, Afghanistan or the U.S.
Scholar Charlotte’s Story
I remember my first time coming to the U.S., I was very enthusiastic and overwhelmed by joy. I also felt that my life wasn’t going to be the same.
As a first year student at Whitman College, I was shocked at how classes were so hard. My main obstacle was the language barrier, coming from Rwanda where English wasn’t my first or second language. Despite the difficulties, I found there was help anytime I needed it from the resources at school to make it easier.
My main challenge coming from a country that has had a terrible history is being asked questions like ‘Which tribe are you from?‘ When I’m asked this, I answer that Rwanda has moved forward and that we are all Rwandans. This often leaves people with confused faces. Then I explain that the Genocide was mainly caused by tribal differences influenced by political leaders that were in power during that time. To move forward as a nation the current government decided that it was essential to end tribalism and for all people in our country to refer to ourselves as Rwandans. This is a symbol of unity amongst everyone.
The time it took me to adjust to academics left little time to interact with people plus the language barrier was also a challenge when making friends. I knew how to speak English but at first my level of speaking was not the best. Often someone would say ‘I’m sorry, I really can’t understand what you’re saying.’ Through interacting with many students I realized domestic students were empathetic towards international students and were they were beginning to imagine how it felt taking classes in another language. This made me feel good about myself. They understood I was doing something no matter how hard it is.
I have enjoyed meeting new people from diverse cultures and languages around the world. Whitman has students from many countries and this has helped me know more about other cultures. For example, I was told by a friend of mine from China that in her country they don’t hug. This is different where I’m from because in Rwanda we hug a lot every time we greet each other. I’ve also enjoyed broadening my experiences at Whitman. I feel this past year has changed me a lot. I’m discovering about myself as an individual. I had never given time to think about myself and even though it’s a scary feeling, I’m loving it. I like describing this feeling like a ‘blind person opening his eyes for the first time.’
Every time I think about Rwanda, I start missing people. I miss my family and friends. I miss the traditional way of how we prepare the food especially ‘ibishyimbo, igitooki, n’amata y’irwanda. Even though I always miss home I’m so glad that I have the best mentors in the world. I can’t imagine not knowing them. Deb helped me apply to colleges, including Whitman. Then Deb, Carol and Diana helped me get settled in the dorm once I arrived and are a great support system. They really love me, give great advice about everything, and they don’t criticize me. Because of this I love them dearly from the bottom of my heart.
I haven’t declared my major yet because I’m still exploring the many interesting classes before I decide. I’m interested in Economics and Gender Studies. My first semester I took a very hard astronomy class. I wish I had waited to take the toughest classes in my sophomore or junior years. But I have no regrets. No class at Whitman is easy, that’s just Whitman and why all the students love the college — because it makes us work our brains to find solutions to difficult problems and I feel like that’s an important skill I will use all my life.
This summer I worked on campus part-time in the Whitman Business Office as the Student Assistant and full-time in the Bookstore for second half of the summer break. I’m also visiting my mentor, Deb, for a summer vacation and to see more of my Bay Area friends from OAD.