True Strength

Grace Hakizimana

An alumna of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies finds light through darkness.

A personal account by writer/editor Sara LaJeunesse.

Each morning when I drop my daughter off at the Penn State Child Care Center at Hort Woods, Grace Hakizimana '12 HDFS is there to greet us. The preschool teacher smiles at my baby girl—now 16 months old—as we come through the door. She speaks to her softly. She helps her find her favorite stuffed squirrel. She treats her as if she is her own. On the outside, Grace radiates warmth. But on the inside, there is darkness.

When Grace was just 16 years old, her life in her home country of Rwanda was turned upside down. All around her people were murdered in a genocide that would last 100 days and leave 800,000 people dead.  

Nine years later, after witnessing unspeakable acts and fearing daily for her life, she was admitted to the United States as a refugee. Alone in a country in which she did not speak or understand the language, she eventually made her way to State College, where former friends of her parents were living. With Penn State at hand, she decided to pursue her dream of attending college.

Grace Hakizimana

I have decided to write a profile about this alumna of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies who has overcome so much in her life, so I ask her to meet me in the children's room at Schlow Library to learn more about her story. Her son Yannick, 7 years old, sits with us at a table, busy making a birthday card for a friend. My toddler and 3-year-old daughter play nearby.

I ask Grace about her experience in Rwanda, but the horrors she has witnessed are unspeakable. Even the little she does tell me causes my eyes to well up with tears.

She says that as a young girl in high school, she wanted to be an accountant like her father, so she majored in economics.

Her plans changed.

"Coming from a country where there are so many problems I felt I wanted to do something for other people as much as I had other people helping me in my life," Grace tells me.

She decided, instead, to follow in her aunt's footsteps and become a nurse. But that goal was put on hold when Yannick was born. Now a single mother who was working full time in a day care center and volunteering for Global Connections—an organization that creates opportunities for international students and recent immigrants—she began to spend whatever time she could spare learning to read, write, and speak English.

When Yannick was two years old, Grace sought assistance from advisers in the College of Health and Human Development in enrolling in Penn State's School of Nursing, but she quickly learned that to earn a degree in nursing she would have to participate in daily clinical experiences in Altoona or Hershey.

"I couldn't do that because I had no one to watch Yannick," she says. "My adviser told me I could help somebody in different ways, and she talked to me about a degree in human development and family studies. I learned I could do so much with human development."

Grace speaks in detail about how much she appreciates the assistance of her advisers, especially Diane Leos, Vanessa Wade, Pam Evock, and Ro Nwranski.

"When I first met Grace she wanted to obtain a degree that would enable her to give back because so many people had helped her along the way," says Nwranski.

So, in 2007, Grace began her course of study in human development and family studies. Along the way, she was awarded a Simmons-Jansma Project Renew Grant from the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The grant was named for Lucretia V. T. Simmons, a past president of the State College AAUW Branch, who, in 1918, was the first woman on the Penn State faculty to become a full professor.

Also during her time as a student, Grace conducted an internship at the Bennett Family Center.

"I love children," she says. That goes without saying, I think to myself, as she lifts my little one, who had come up to her for a snuggle, into her lap. "I either wanted to work with children or the elderly in a nursing home," she continues. "For now this is something that I want to do. But I still have a goal of becoming a nurse."

Grace plans to go back to nursing school when Yannick is old enough to stay home alone. Ultimately, her goal is to work with an organization like Doctors Without Borders.

"I want to work with women and children in Africa, especially in east Africa, where they have so many refugee camps," she says. "I never lived in one, but I have friends who lived in those situations. I feel like I can be a big help, especially as a woman. I feel like women in African society do so much, and in time of civil war, things are not good; most of the time women and children suffer more than men. When you look at Congo right now or Sudan, women are living in bad conditions. They have children to raise, and they don't have anything to feed them. Most of the time they have to go to get the water somewhere and they end up being raped."

At the mention of water, Yannick pipes in. "I know how those women in Africa carry water," he says. "On their heads!"

"I can do that," his mother responds, grinning. "During genocide we used to go get the water that way. It's a natural thing; everybody knows how to do it."

Yannick chuckles at the thought.

I decide it's a good time to wrap up the interview, so we all say goodbye. But after Grace and Yannick leave, I am haunted by my own imagining of what Grace has endured. I hug my girls tightly, hanging onto them until they wiggle free from my grasp.

Later, I talk to Ro Nwranski on the phone. Over the years, she has come to know Grace well. She speaks candidly. "What Grace has been through in her life is incomprehensible," she says. "Her courage has helped me and others to understand true strength. Grace and students like her help us to be a better institution."

Once again my eyes fill up with tears. I know what she means.

When Grace graduated in May 2012, she was among hundreds of other students who were also experiencing emotions of pride and relief that day. Yet few, perhaps, felt them with the same level of intensity as she did. For Grace, that day was much more than a celebration of the completion of her studies; it was a recognition of her triumph over hardships that most Penn State graduates never have to endure.

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For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.