Songa Rugangazi wants to rebuild a nation, but not just any nation. His interest is in Rwanda, where he was born at the end of the Rwandan Civil War amid ethnic genocide.
The 17-year-old hopes to become part of a new generation of Rwandans eager to improve their homeland.
Rugangazi, who graduated this month and returned to Rwanda for the summer, plans to return to the United States in the fall to study industrial engineering at Purdue University. But he took his first step toward that goal four years ago, when he was accepted at Mount Michael Benedictine High School. The opportunity to attend the private Catholic boarding school in the Elkhorn area of Omaha was made possible by the Rwandan American Foundation, or RAF, an international student outreach program.
“My time there (at Mount Michael) opened doors for me, through the great education that I received, that might otherwise might have never been opened, and I am very grateful for this,” he said.
Gerard Sefuku, founder and coordinator of the foundation, based in South Bend, Ind., said the program tries to find American schools willing to provide financial aid to qualified Rwandan students. Mount Michael, as one of the foundation's partners, provides partial aid for the students' room, board and tuition. The rest of the money comes from the foundation and the students' families.
“After the genocide of 1994, Tutsi genocide, I'd been looking for a way to help the Rwandan community,” he said, “and I realized that the only way a country can come back from defeat and recover from it was to go to education.”
Founded in 1996, the foundation has proved to be successful through its students — students like Rugangazi who not only excelled in academic and athletic activities at Mount Michael, but was also named this year's Mount Michael Benedictine Award winner. The award, voted on by the faculty, goes to the senior who best represents Mount Michael's ideals.
Songa Rugangazi “just shows how much these guys are taking advantage of the opportunity to come here,” said Eric Crawford, Mount Michael's director of admissions. “Songa, just like the other guys, embraced everything that Mount Michael has to offer.”
Mount Michael has hosted five Rwandan students through the program since 2007. Crawford said the program is just as beneficial to Mount Michael's local students as it is to the foreign guests.
“I don't know if I could get the same experience anywhere else,” Mount Michael freshman Anthony Taylor said. “I feel honored to be able to work with people who are coming from a different country to be in America. That kind of says something about your country and your school.”
During the 2011-12 school year, Mount Michael had 212 students, 27 of them from five foreign countries. Crawford said Mount Michael's goal is for international students to make up 10 percent of each grade level.
“Being a college prep school, any advantage we can give our kids in not only being prepared for college, but the real world, we try and take advantage of that,” Crawford said. “So we saw that (the RAF program) as an opportunity for our guys to be exposed to students of different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Rugangazi was one of three Rwandan students enrolled during 2011-12; the others were senior John Bucyana and sophomore David Uwingangi. Uwingangi said the invaluable advice provided to him by Rugangazi will stick with him.
“On the weekends, we would sit in a room and he would tell me about the obstacles I might meet maybe my senior year or junior year, and tell me what I should have done or what he would have done,” Uwingangi said.
“That was really helpful.”
Rugangazi said he looks forward to putting his helpful nature to use to better his country.
With an industrial engineering degree, he said, “I plan on eventually returning to Rwanda and using my expertise and all that I have learned to industrialize Rwanda and help with the effort to develop the nation as a whole.”