Meet North’s Kwizera Imani: From Refugee to STEM Keynoter

KwizeraImaniKwizera Imani’s story begins a half-a-world away from North High School, where today he is a senior. When the Rwandan genocide of the early 1990s spread to other states, Kwizera’s parents fled their home in Burundi to seek refuge in nearby Tanzania, where he was born in 1997. Growing up and attending school in a U.N. refugee camp, Kwizera and his family were selected to come to the United States in 2008.

Today, Kwizera had the opportunity to share his story as the keynote speaker at the 2015 Iowa STEM Summit, sponsored by the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. Kwizera told of his experience at Des Moines Public Schools, from meeting the language and cultural challenges of an English Language Learner student to now taking part in everything from Advanced Placement courses to aviation technology to North’s robotics team. What’s next for Kwizera? He plans to study aerospace engineering at Iowa State University.

Below is a copy of Kwizera’s remarks:

Hello, my name is Kwizera Imani. I am honored to stand and to speak to you today.

I am a student attending Des Moines North High School and I would like to give you a short story of my coming to the United States. In 1994, the Rwanda genocide spread to Burundi which forced my parents to immigrate. At the time the war reached Burundi, my parents had four kids, all of them girls. My parents had fled from their home country Burundi due to the violence. They fled to Kigoma, Tanzania where I was born on February 17,1997. They were unable to stay there because the cost of living was too expensive for them. So they decided to relocate to a refugee camp called Mutabila in Kasulu, Tanzania. The camp became my home for the next ten years of my life. My parents had two more children, my little brother (Robert) and sister (Happiness).

At the age of five I lost my mother and little sister, because of a lack of medication at the camp. This changed my life because I didn’t have that someone to go and cry to. My dad had to work a lot to support our family. He sent me to a school where I felt at home. All of my friends were there, and it was an environment where I didn’t have to think of the loved ones that I had lost. In our camp, going to school was a privilege that only few had.

At my school we would learn math, and science in French as a way to learn another language. Although I was in a refugee camp, the curriculum felt much harder than here in the States. There was always the stress of meeting the requirement of 80% proficiency or higher on our test scores or we could not continue to the next grade level. Our teacher would whack us with a stick if we didn’t know the answer to some of the questions they asked us, or if we didn’t finish the homework. I continued with school until I was in the fifth grade. While I was in fifth grade, the United Nations selected a group of families who had been affected by the genocide to come to the United States in 2008 and we were chosen!

When I arrived in the United States it was hard for me and my family to adjust to our new environment. Two weeks after our arrival we were all required to go to school. I didn’t really fit in because of the language barrier. Our inability to speak English was one of the biggest obstacles that we all had; we knew that it was something we were going to have to overcome to be able to adjust to America. Over time I begin to pick up bits and pieces of American culture: food, sports and television. I began to spend most of my time at my friend’s house, where I had to speak English to get what I wanted. This forced me to practice and of course helped me excel in my ELL classes. I was able to pass my ELDA test for ESL students and transitioned to the traditional classes in eighth grade.

Since arriving at Des Moines North High School, I worked very hard and by the end of my junior year, have taken all the required classes a student needs to graduate. I was fortunate enough to apply to, and be accepted into the Aviation program at the Des Moines airport. This experience inspired me to pursue and continue in the STEM field. In that class I was taught the proper way to inspect an aircraft, the regulations in aviation, and the mechanics behind aircraft systems. The aviation program is a three year program, but I had to stop after only two because my schedule was too full. So I created a new goal, and I’m taking five college courses: AP Calculus, AP Statistics, AP Physics, AP Government, and AP Literature & Composition. I know that college is going to be challenging, so I want to put myself in an environment that challenges me and prepares me for college.

After high school, I will be attending Iowa State University for the Aerospace Engineering Program. I plan to be the first in my family’s generation to go to attend a college or university, AND to finish! Some of my siblings have attempted college, but they were not able to continue because of financial responsibilities. I have decided that no matter what struggles come my way, I must persevere and be an example for my little brother. In the future I hope to be able to work with Rockwell Collins, Boeing, or NASA and continue to enhance my ability in an Aerospace field.

One of the things that I am most passionate about is education and the future of our generation. Stem is a great program that gets students actively engaged in engineering careers. This program is doing a terrific job of recognizing talent that kids have and bringing it to life. One of the unfortunate things that I see in my school is the lack of student interest to become involved in programs such STEM because they fear that is too hard for them. I believe that one way to get to students who are having a tough time getting interested in this career, is to show them the benefits of STEM programs. When students hear “come join our Robotics Club,” right away some students respond with, “That’s a club for nerds, I don’t want to do that!” But if you start with “Come with us on a field trip to visit Boeing!” the students will get excited. When the students return to school the next day he/she will have a new vision of what type of student can enjoy STEM classes. They will join the class/club because they know that learning can and will be fun! It isn’t just sitting in a chair listening to lectures, but getting up and moving around. Thinking critically and finding solutions to problems. You aren’t alone either, you participate as a team with teachers who encourage you. The last thing that I will say is that we need to implement and strengthen the existing STEM classes in the elementary schools, into middle school, so students will continue in high school. The best way to influence students is to grab their attention at a young age. If we involve them at a young age they will become confident and proud, and the number of students interested in stem careers will grow.

And I will end with a quote from Benjamin Franklin who said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

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