In March 2011, I felt worn out and hopeless, believing that life had turned against me. I had just finished secondary school with good results, but still I had been turned down by four American universities. What had I done wrong? Was I stupid?
A year later, though, a miracle of success occurred, the result of endurance, hard work, and belief in both others and myself. This is the story of my journey, from rejection to a scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League college in the United States and truly the destination for a dream come true.
The story starts on the grounds of Sonrise School in the northern part of Rwanda. In early June 2010, as I thought about continuing my education after high school, an idea came to mind: pursuing higher education in the U.S. I shared the idea with my mother, who at the age of 52 was herself a student at ULK, and she embraced the thought. But was going to school in the U.S. really achievable? I thought I could give it a try.
Anna Reed, our American English instructor at Sonrise, said one word to me: “SAT.” I responded with excitement, “What kind of animal is this SAT?”
The SAT, I soon learned, is an American college entrance exam I would need to take and do well on, to show I was well-prepared for school. The test is composed of three sections: math, reading and writing – each worth up to 800 points, for a total possible score of 2400. I decided to take the risk and began studying for the SAT.
Throughout my senior-6 year, I studied for the national exams during the day, and at night I concentrated on my college applications. It was so tiresome to peruse that big SAT study book. My head throbbed and sometimes my nose would bleed.
Other students started to discourage me. “Izo ni inzozi...” (Those are dreams!), they shouted at me, while I was taking my first SAT practice test.
Even after 20 practice tests, I could not hit the mark. My first score was 1050 and my 20th was 1140 – very far below 2400. Would 1140 be good enough to get me a scholarship to a college such as Boston University? I doubted it. I thought of giving up and focusing only on my A-level exams, but I persevered.
I took my first official SAT test, one of more than 2 million students worldwide, and scored 1140, which put me at the bottom 8th percentile of all performers – not very good for a top U.S. school, but hopefully it would be good enough for a Rwandan student. My TOEFL English exam score was also not very strong – only 517; most U.S. schools prefer a 550 or higher, and above 600 for the schools that could give out full scholarships. Yet after all the hard work I had invested, I had to keep my dream alive.
In 2010, I applied to Baylor University, Emory University, Boston University, and the University of Rochester, but none accepted me. I felt as if my “Inzozi” – my dreams – were impossible to achieve. I saw my mother weep, which was torture for me and my family.
As horrified as I was by the rejection, I remembered the words from the actor, Denzel Washington, who in a graduation speech at the University of Pennsylvania told students to “fall forward.” Sometimes adversity, challenges and rejections teach us to begin again, but this time, more intelligently, if we can learn from our mistakes.
I fell forward, into improving my preparation and trying again. I relaunched my college journey. In the spring of 2011, Bridge2Rwanda, an American organization based in Kigali at Telecom House, started the Bridge2Rwanda Scholars program. This is an intensive, ten-month college preparation program in advanced English reading and writing, in community service, spirituality and leadership.
I was fortunate to become part of the inaugural class. Great! I thought to myself. Here was a new vision of college opportunity. It was a place to reconnect, and a time to assess the journey and learn the importance of endurance. As a B2R Scholar, I moved forward and faced my fear of being rejected again. We studied a great deal and improved our reading and writing, which made us more proficient in English and increased our ability to take American college-level courses. We learned that we could not only study by reading the test. We needed to read more of everything, and only gradually would our comprehension improve.
As Bridge2Rwanda Scholars, we also learned the benefits of past adversity and failure. We saw that whatever the outcome, it was always possible for us to learn on our own and succeed in our studies, no matter where we attended. At the same time, the program inspired us. I took more risks and applied to my dream schools, including the University of Pennsylvania.
Through the Scholars program training, I raised my SAT score to 1420, much improved over what I had done before. I had to ask myself, though, was it good enough to get me to the University of Pennsylvania? I would soon find out.
In late March 2012, I checked my e-mail. One word broadcast victory for me: “Congratulations!” As part of its policies, now that I was accepted, UPenn agreed to give me enough scholarship as I needed to attend. Overcome with emotion, I fell on the ground and cried tears of happiness.
For two years, I had awaited this good news. My endurance, hard work and faith had sustained me. The reading and writing skills I acquired through Bridge2Rwanda’s Scholars program had made all the difference.
Imagine, out of 31,217 applicants, only 3,200 students would be accepted – including one hopeless Rwandan.
Now, the next phase of my journey begins – in Philadelphia, home of the university. As I prepare to leave, I look back with gratitude for all I have learned. The lessons are many. I learned about taking the SAT examination, and also about the importance of reading and studying for their own sake. The objective is not only to improve one’s English, but to try to understand and give back to the world. And, of course, I learned the true meaning of never giving up, the importance of faith that sustains us, and always falling forward.
These are the moments that remain so vivid in my mind. As Rwandan children, should we give up, every time we lose? Should we let our past circumstances define our future? Should we continue to remain in misery when we have lost? We have to become something more than what the old limitations and hopelessness prescribe us to be. Determination and faith count more than anything.
Today, Rwandan students are no different than anyone else. Our education system is competitive and has improved a great deal in recent years, so that with hard work, we can now attain acceptance to U.S. schools. The university system in the U.S. is open to us, if we are well-qualified academically and fully prepared to succeed at school. Best of all, many of my classmates in the Scholars program had shared similar experiences to mine, but by the end these friends had also won scholarships to other great schools in the U.S.
U.S. universities even want to make an impression in Africa, and Rwanda is a country on the move. We have to put aside our fears and not let them get in our way. We have to step out of our comfort zones. We have to read and write. We need to use our talents and opportunities more effectively. And in the end, we can rise above our country's tragic past and chart a course for her future.