Marie Ntawizera didn’t walk away from her life and her family. She ran.
In 1994, genocide erupted in Rwanda, and Marie and her husband joined the millions forced to flee.
Marie, who holds a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Lesley, and who is now a master’s candidate in the same discipline, doesn’t want to talk about the tragedy in Rwanda that left family members and friends dead.
“It’s the work of the devil,” she says. “It was a traumatic event.”
She will answer questions about life after she left her country. More than 20 years ago, living in a tent in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo and pregnant with her first child, Marie was about as far away from her current life as she could be.
After arriving at the camp, Marie got a job caring for orphaned children with the Red Cross.
“I worked day and night for those children. They were innocent, motherless, and homeless,” she says.
Marie looked after the children until she contracted malaria during her seventh month of pregnancy. When a doctor gave her the wrong medication, inadvertently inducing labor, Marie was resigned that she might not survive. She prayed God would save her baby and be a “souvenir,” a word that means to remember in French, in case she did not live.
It was Marie’s connection to the Red Cross that saved her baby. When her daughter was born prematurely, Red Cross workers instructed her to create a makeshift incubator from a cardboard box filled with donated blankets. For two months, Marie tucked bottles of hot water under the blankets to keep her daughter warm. A few months later her baby was healthy, and the family received approval to move to Ghana, where she taught French to elementary school students. Twelve years later, the family moved again, this time to the United States.
Although Marie and her husband had little money and worked full-time jobs, she was able to attend Bunker Hill Community College, starting in English language classes and then earning an associate’s degree.
“He gave me priority to go to school,” she says of her husband. Even so, when she said she wanted to get her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, it seemed like a farfetched idea. The couple had three children by then—two daughters in college and a son in elementary school—but when Marie heard about Lesley’s Bunker Hill partnership through our Center for the Adult Learner, which creates pathways for students to study at the community college while earning a bachelor’s degree through Lesley, her dream came into focus.
Jennine Tambio, Lesley’s director of Community College Partnerships and Advising, worked with Marie throughout her undergraduate career and was continually impressed by her attitude and work ethic.
“She’s been through a lot and she doesn’t have an easy life, but she has so much positivity and I think that positivity and persistence makes her so successful. She always looks for the best in everything,” says Jennine.
Marie frequently took advantage of study support on campus, got up early to do her schoolwork and graduated with all A’s. Marie knew the program would give her the credentials to teach children, but she also wanted to set an example for her daughters.
“I wanted to show them that education is the key for everything,” she says.
When Marie later decided to go to graduate school, she says, “it was my opportunity to reach to the fullest of my potential.” Her children were dubious that it was a good idea.
“I said to them, I can do it,” recalls Marie. “It is expensive, yes, but God opened a door for me.”
Marie’s daughter, the same one born two months early and nursed to health in a refugee camp, quickly followed in her mother’s footsteps. A semester after Marie started graduate school, her daughter got the courage to go to college herself, matriculating at Suffolk University.
“My children and their children will follow this. That’s my happiness,” says Marie, who is on track to graduate in 2020.
After she completes her master’s degree, Marie would like to work in public schools, and if possible, one day return to Rwanda to establish an early childhood education program.
“They need help in my hometown,” she says. “I can do something.”