Rwandan Student Found Home Among Converse Community
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Rwandan Student Found Home Among Converse Community

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Natacha Karambizi knew at a young age that she had a mind for science and math.

She attended an all girls high school in her native Rwanda, where she was on a study track heavy on math and sciences. She knew she wanted to attend college in the United States, where there was more opportunity for scientific research. On Saturday, May 16, weighted down with colorful cords over her shoulders denoting academic excellence and leadership, Karambizi graduated from Converse College with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

“I’m interested in chemistry, drug development and design…Malaria is a huge problem in Rwanda.”

This summer, she will begin research as a graduate student at Texas A&M University on a full scholarship.

“I’m interested in chemistry, drug development and design,” Karambizi said. “Something where I would see positive results. Malaria is a huge problem in Rwanda. … There is better education here, in sciences especially,” Karambizi said. “I also wanted to go into research, and there’s not just as many resources in Rwanda.”

While at Converse, Karambizi has had the opportunity to conduct chemical research with chemistry professor Sheri Strickland, and she received funding for a project through S.C. Independent Colleges and Universities. She presented her grant-funded work at the Western Carolinas American Chemical Society meeting at Furman last year.

Karambizi also attended the Southeastern Regional meeting of the American Chemical Society the past two years. With Strickland, she used the University of South Carolina’s lab in Columbia to run chemical reactions. Strickland said Karambizi also learned how to use SciFinder Scholar, the premier electronic database for chemical literature.

“Natacha has a keen interest in drug development and design, especially when it comes to diseases that are common in Africa,” Strickland said. “She is now off to Texas A&M to pursue her doctorate in chemistry and to contribute to the conversation that just might come up with a new or more effective treatment for diseases like malaria. She is bright and wonderful, brave and mature, having done all of this in a language that is not her first and in a place where she could not see her parents for all of her college career.”

“She is bright and wonderful, brave and mature, having done all of this in a language that is not her first and in a place where she could not see her parents for all of her college career.”

Karambizi was inducted into various honor societies: the Nisbet honors program, Alpha Lambda Delta, Omicron Delta Kappa, Mortar Board, Gamma Sigma Society and National Society of Black Engineers. She spent summers in Houston with a sister, who is in nursing school, and taught at a STEM camp for minority students. For the first part of this summer before she begins her research at Texas A&M, she’ll serve as director of the camp.

Although far away from home, Karambizi was not alone in Spartanburg. She at first spent holidays, when the campus was typically closed, with education professor Lisa Schoer and her husband, Jack. Last year, she lived with the Schoers and has become a part of their family, so much so that Lisa Schoer sheds tears with the thought of Karambizi leaving. “She’s become such a huge part of our lives,” Lisa Schoer said. “We’re very proud of her.”

After her freshman year, Karambizi was running out of money, and Converse’s tuition had not yet been reduced. She thought she’d have to move in with a sister in Maine and attend a larger, public university there. But Lisa Schoer encouraged the soft spoken student to speak up and contact Converse President Betsy Fleming. Karambizi eventually found funding to remain at Converse. “That’s why I love Converse — they showed that they cared,” Karambizi said.

While living with the Schoers, Karambizi learned how to swim. Jack Schoer taught her how to drive, and she received her driver’s license. She learned how to bake, and is a certified barista, having worked at Starbucks on North Pine Street. “I went hiking, and I shot a gun for the first time,” Karambizi said of her adventures with her American family. “They’ve been my parents for the past four years.”

With texting and Skype, Karambizi felt like her parents, Venuste and Consolee, were never that far away. Venuste, a college professor, and Consolee, a fifth-grade teacher, traveled from Rwanda for their daughter’s graduation and spent a week with the Schoers. “We will never forget what they did for her,” said Venuste, who has invited the Schoers to Rwanda and hopes they can remain friends in the future. “It should not end here.”

Venuste praises his daughter’s strengths and accomplishments, and he is happy that she experienced living in another country. “Magna cum laude,” Venuste said. “We always knew she was strong.”

Consolee was her daughter’s biggest support for coming to the United States for college. “She convinced my dad,” Karambizi said. “She saw the benefits of coming here to study. She thought it would be better.” But Consolee almost didn’t get to see her daughter graduate. The Rwandan government issued a visa for her father to travel, but would not at first issue one for Consolee. The Schoers contacted U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s office and the problem was resolved in a few days. Lisa Schoer said it was likely that the Rwandan government was concerned that the Karambizis would try to stay in the United States if they traveled together. The Schoers wrote letters to vouch for the couple and point out that the Karambizis have jobs and family, including their youngest son, in Rwanda.

The Karambizis were amazed that the Schoers could so easily contact their government representative. “My mother is very thankful to the man (Paul Howell) who works in the senator’s office,” Karambizi said.

Karambizi will remain in the United States for the next several years, to finish her graduate degree and conduct research. She said she plans on returning to Rwanda eventually to be a professor. “I think it’s very important because there aren’t that many women doing research,” Karambizi said. “I want to work here (in the United States) because there are obviously more opportunities. But I also want to go back to Rwanda and contribute something.”

This story was written by Jenny Arnold of the Spartanburg Herald Journal.
Photo credit John Byrum

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