North’s Nishimwe Embarks on Service to Iowa

North High's Robert

North High’s Robert Nishimwe is about to begin a term as the student member of the State Board of Education.

Robert Nishimwe is just completing his sophomore year at North High School and about to begin his first year as a member of the State Board of Education. That makes him sound like a young man in a hurry. Sort of like his role as a member of the school track team. But when you sit and talk with him he comes across as patient and calm. His eyes are bright and his smile is disarming. Wait and see, fellow Board members – he will make his presence felt, despite that seeking appointment to the board wasn’t even his idea in the first place.

“My counselor (Loretta Martzahl) called me in to say that some of my teachers wanted to nominate me for this position,” Robert said. “She asked me what I thought about it. I didn’t know what to think. So I talked it over with some people and decided to go for it.”

That meant an application process that began mid-school year and culminated when he was called by the governor’s office to arrange for an interview with Governor Branstad. Appointments to state boards are up to him.

“At first I was intimidated,” Robert said. “But it became comfortable and by the time I left I had a hunch he was going to appoint me because he told me his staff would be calling me about meeting dates.”

Formal notification came earlier this month. Robert’s first meeting will be a board retreat in Ankeny on June 9-10. He has come a long, long way from birth in a refugee camp in Tanzania, the youngest of seven children born to parents from Burundi. But he is now on a path blazed by his older brother Kwizera Imani. Now studying aerospace engineering at Iowa State University, Kwizera attracted our attention a year ago when he was a senior at North. Robert may be following his big brother’s good example but he isn’t exactly walking in his footsteps. His plans don’t involve rocket science.

“I think someday I would like to study business and get an M.B.A.,” he says, “but that is not all.” That goal would satisfy his practical side but there is more to him than that, perhaps something creative. “I have job-shadowed an architect, but I am not sure. There are still some things I have to discover about myself.”

He still lives in a household where Kirundi and Swahili are the primary languages. After starting as an ELL student in elementary school at first South Union and later Oak Park and Moulton, Robert is well-spoken in English and divides his class schedule between North and Central Academy. He credits involvement with a community outreach program while at Moulton as good preparation for what lies ahead in his role on the Board of Ed.

“At CFUM (Children and Family Urban Movement) we would have many discussions about the obstacles that some children face with poverty and safety and education,” he said. Little did he know then that those perspectives might come in handy as a high schooler seated at a table with state policymakers. CFUM is a nonprofit agency that seeks “to create a community that supports the potential of children, youth, and families through educational success, healthy living, and community engagement,” according to its mission statement.

Robert is living proof that it’s making a difference. He and his brother are two prime, local examples of the ironic truth that sometimes the most All-American stories don’t begin in America. But this is where the happy endings happen.

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