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Learning to Speak Their Minds

SylvieBiruta and Benita NzamuyeTransylvania University’s beacon shines on unexpected places.

Two first-year students from Kigali, Rwanda, plan to take what they learn at Transylvania back to their central African homeland, which is making a significant recovery from the genocide that ravaged the country nearly two decades ago.

Sylvie Biruta and Benita Nzamuye—who are part of the most international incoming class in Transylvania’s history—have found a helpful and open community here in Lexington.

They’ve felt a little culture shock, too. “Here it’s different,” Nzamuye said. “Everyone freely gives their opinion.”

Biruta said she feels a greater sense of freedom to speak her mind at Transylvania. “We used to basically let the teacher speak back home and not really be as expressive as we are here.”

While Rwandans have freedom of speech, a sense of respectfulness often keeps them from saying what they really want to say.

Biruta plans to major in business administration and return home after graduation, or possibly graduate school, to start a business. She wants to contribute to her country’s economic development and bring in fresh ideas.

As for Nzamuye, she wants to major in political science. “It’s really exciting because we’re learning new things,” she said. “So hopefully we’ll take something important from here back to Rwanda.”

So how did the two young women end up at this small college in the Bluegrass?

Biruta and Nzamuye were close friends at an international high school in Rwanda. The school helped prepare them for international study, in part because of its diverse student body. Rwanda is also transitioning from a French- to an English-speaking country, which made studying in the U.S. seem less daunting. Both students speak English fluently.

Working with an international study advisor, each expressed interest in attending a private school with small classes and the opportunity to work closely with professors, Nzamuye said. Her advisor told her Transylvania would be the ideal place. “It is,” she said.

Funny thing was, since the friends hadn’t really talked to each other about college plans, they were surprised to discover they were both headed to Transylvania.

Since arriving in Lexington this past August, the students have appreciated the hospitality offered by friends, staff, and faculty. For example, International Student Advisor Darlene Ogata and Associate Director of Admissions Ingrid Allen showed them around town and took them shopping.

The university—which recently adopted a strategic enrollment plan that emphasizes attracting more international students—assists them in a number of ways. For instance, first-year seminar instructor James Wright introduces them to the academic expectations of an American liberal arts college while helping them improve their English language and writing skills. Peer tutors in the university’s Writing Center are also available to offer assistance.

Additionally, Transylvania students who are far from home are frequently paired with local “friendship families” who provide general support as well as help getting acclimated to the Lexington area. They may invite their students to their homes over holiday breaks or enjoy local events or meals with them.

For the Rwandan students, that kind of personal attention can be a big help when your hometown is a 17-hour plane ride away. They really appreciate their local friendship family: Serenity Wright, who graduated from Transylvania in 2005, and her husband Mike.

The extra attention devoted to helping international students feel comfortable in their new environment seems to be well received. Biruta and Nzamuye, at least, appear to have found a home away from home. “We really like it so far,” Biruta said.

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