Earning a degree at the age of 53, a story of resilience

Her parents told her that she was born in Rwanda in 1961, and that they were forced to flee, with her as a toddler, to Uganda following the violence of Rwanda's transition to Independence. Half a decade later, Jane enrolled at Kigali Independent University, and today, at 53 years, she has graduated as part of the class of 2014.

Her parents told her that she was born in Rwanda in 1961, and that they were forced to flee, with her as a toddler, to Uganda following the violence of Rwanda’s transition to Independence. Half a decade later, Jane enrolled at Kigali Independent University, and today, at 53 years, she has graduated as part of the class of 2014.

I met Jane at a graduation party a week ago. A close relative of mine, with whom Jane had studied, had decided to throw a party to rejoice with family and friends. Invited along with Jane were three classmates, a woman and two men in their early 40s, also fresh from graduation. 

So, the party ended up being something like a group celebration. As tradition dictates, they took turns recounting the journey and what the degree means to them. All were touching stories, particularly because they were non-traditional students (outside the ‘normal’ age range of university students). All spoke about how, growing up, they had loved school, and how it was interrupted for one reason or another. For some, tears started to flow as they recounted this difficult past.

Jane did not cry when it was her turn to speak. Perhaps, having been on this earth longer than those who spoke before her, she is somewhat more immunized as a result of life’s trials and tribulations.

Her voice delicate, Jane recounted how her thirst for learning was always impeded by circumstances beyond her control. How she had completed primary school in 1975, and how her poor family had struggled to find school fees for her to continue her secondary studies, which had forced her to take a short break, only to resume a few years later, and eventually come to what appeared like a permanent stop when she reached senior three. 

Years passed before she enrolled for classes in Home Economics, courses reserved for women at the time, at a local YMCA in Kampala, where she earned skills in tailoring and cooking, skills that would help her land a job in the hospitality industry as a caterer.

Soon after, she met a man who would become her husband and with whom they would have two children, a boy and a girl. After the birth of the second born, however, duty called. The husband, father of two little toddlers, had to join the liberation struggle against President Habyarimana and his henchmen.

In 1992, her husband was killed on the frontline. She ensured that his death was not in vain by returning to the country of her birth in 1996. As a single mother, she raised the two children, educating them till they graduated from university.

With the children taken care of, Jane thought about returning to school to complete her studies. However, this was not to be. Not yet. Her elder sibling passed away, leaving behind four young children. Jane took them in, raising and educating them as she had done with her own.

By now, Jane was clocking close to 50 years. But she was not to be stopped. She had a debt with education that had to be settled: a degree. Taking a few classes at a time, Jane began to prepare for the national exams for senior six students, as a private candidate.

The rest, as they say, is history. But as Jane was telling her story of triumph, I noted that she had no graduation gown. I came to find out that she could not afford the 20,000 francs they were required to pay for the gown.

For Jane, a gown was clearly too trivial a concern to her. She was visibly satisfied, with a sense of accomplishment that spoke of an inner peace with the self.

Which led me to thinking. I thought about education and how we conceptualise it. It appears that we spend too much time contrasting between the quantity (access) and quality of education, and that in doing so, we often disregard aspects of education that help to make a human being whole.

The contrasting poles cannot capture its psychological elements. That is, the way that Jane’s education contributed to enhance her sense of personal satisfaction, self-confidence, and self-worth.

It also calls at re-examining the value we attach to private universities in this country, particularly given its unique challenges. The school from which Jane has restored her sense of self is often disparagingly referred to as, “Iyo Urireka,” for instance.

But Jane’s story tells of a university capable of restoring hopes and dreams, one that is playing a restorative role in society, and therefore, does not deserve such contemptuous nomenclature, for instance.

For Jane, she must now compete with fellow graduates in their early 20s in a ruthless job-market. As an exemplary student, having graduated with Honors, ULK ought to set up a position of Adult Learning Coordinator for Jane, as someone who embodies resilience, to use as a platform as an ambassador to inspire others who may have cold feet about retracing their path to recover part of themselves.

lonzen.rugira@gmail.com

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