Refugees find refuge as college students in Vermont
Champlain College awards scholarships to Rwandans, Vietnamese, and others, enriching recipients and fellow students.
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Jean Luc Dushime's road to Champlain College was more than 4,000 miles long.Skip to next paragraph
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That's how far his family walked to escape when violence erupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was 16. His family had gone to the DRC seeking refuge during the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
He attended school after arriving in Republic of Congo, before being resettled in Burlington in 2004. "I'm still learning to come back to life," he says, reflecting on the six-month walk where he felt like a "zombie," thinking only about survival.
It's Mr. Dushime's energy, by contrast, that impresses people here. His experiences have left him conversant in five languages and hungry to learn. This lithe young man has refined his English and taken up snowboarding. He volunteers at a youth center and works with refugee students in local schools.
Despite having earned a journalism degree in Africa, he needed a US degree to be marketable, and he's studying public relations. When he inquired at Champlain, he says, "not only did people want to see me get in, but they were interested to know me as a person.... After that, the big jump was the money." The scholarship came just in time.
"The first month was kind of hard, not only being black African, but also being an adult, 27 years old," he says of his adjustment to the campus overlooking Lake Champlain.
Seeing many refugees arrive who don't know English or may have had no schooling, he's driven to help younger students find a path to college. "[I want to] inspire those kids from the inside out.... I'm poor and I have a lot of issues to overcome, but I strongly believe I can do it.... That's what makes me survive and go on every day, and that's what I want to give to those kids." (An audio slide show featuring Dushime is available at: www.csmonitor.com/refugee)
Maria: Breaking stereotypes
Maria Thach has lived in Burlington since she was a toddler, but her goals are shaped by her roots in the Vietnamese refugee community.
By high school, she knew she wanted to attend college and study criminal justice. Her family and other new refugees had been terrified by what should have been friendly encounters with police, "because of what they had encountered in Vietnam," she says, and she wants to help people understand "that law enforcement is there to help you, protect you."
The first in her family to apply to college, she found it stressful. Her parents had never learned English as well as she had and didn't understand the system. But her high school counselor told her about the scholarship at Champlain. "I had never heard of a scholarship like this before," she says.
While she is often the only Asian woman in her classes, she enjoys contributing something unique. "When we were discussing a topic like different government structures, I actually shared stories my father told me about the Vietnam government. A lot of people, from the war, have stereotypes ... but over the years [the country] has definitely changed.... They were like, 'Wow, I can understand now.' "
Hau: Finding courage to be an artist
For Hau "Howie" Le, the New American Student Scholarship means freedom to pursue a career in multimedia graphic design.
"As a kid, my parents told me, 'You don't get paid as an artist, so forget about it,' " he says. He dutifully started out with a criminal-justice major. After one semester, he had the confidence to follow his own dream. "With the scholarship, I realized I'm not going to be in debt that much after I graduate ... so I should still try."
Now he just has to prove he can succeed in college, defying the track record of some others in the Vietnamese refugee community, including his aunt, who have tried and dropped out.
"That was life-changing," he says – even for his family, he hopes. "[They think,] 'We take care of the family, we don't need to worry about anything else.'... So I told them that I'm going to do this to prove that community service is important."
He showed his parents a movie he made about the trip. "They had no reaction on their faces ... but they told their friends what I did, and it sounded like they were proud of me."