APPLETON — Two new students enrolled at St. Francis Xavier High School this year and studying there is not only a benefit to them but to the entire school community.
Lady Ntunze and Chadia Igiraneza, 16-year-old sophomores, are from Burundi, a small country in eastern Africa. Their arrival in the United States to complete their high school education at Xavier is the culmination of years of work on the part of Egide Nimubona and the Burundi Education Fund, which is based in Appleton.
The Burundi Education Fund — which was founded by Nimubona, an American citizen who was born and raised in Burundi — is a charitable organization formed to provide materials and financial support to students and schools in extreme poverty in Burundi. A civil war and ethnic cleansing from 1993 to 2006 devastated the country.
Education is a privilege in Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the entire world. It costs approximately $29 annually for tuition, room and board for secondary education. Many families cannot afford to send their children to school. While Ntunze and Igiraneza come from families that are better off than most in their country, it’s still a large expense for the girls’ parents to send them to the United States to study for the next three years. Chadia has six brothers and one sister and Lady has three brothers and one sister.
Xavier principal Matt Reynebeau is happy to welcome the girls. “These students are the first students to attend Xavier who presently live in Africa. I think these students, as well as all of our international students, offer a glimpse of the world to our American students. They share their culture with the school and add diversity to our school community,” said Reynebeau.
“When talking to them, it is amazing to see how similar they are to our American students. They are thoughtful, polite, considerate and wanting to do well. Their ability to speak English is surprisingly good,” he added.
Living in Wisconsin and attending St. Francis Xavier High School has taken some getting used to but both girls were eager to take advantage of this opportunity. “I wanted to be better in English so I can have many opportunities for college,” said Igiraneza, who plans to study neurology in college and become a neurophysician.
Ntunze plans to study law. “My parents told me about this and asked if I wanted to come here. They knew they can give me a higher education than I can have in Burundi.”
Both girls said they like attending Xavier. “I like Xavier more day by day,” said Igiraneza. “The first days I was lost. Now that I have classes with the same people every day I have many friends. It’s interesting and the teachers are really kind.”
“It’s not that different from Burundi. I like Xavier. I have friends. I like my teachers,” added Ntunze. “(But) I think in Burundi it’s (harder) because we have to study more.”
“You don’t choose classes like here so you have to take all the classes,” explained Igiraneza. “What is hard at Xavier is we changed the language. In Burundi we speak French and Kirundi.”
The girls are living with hosts families here. Julia and Richard Paalman are hosting Igiraneza, and Elisa and Joe Tremblay and their five children, ages 7 to 16, host Ntunze.
“When Egide told us he was going to ask students from Burundi to come over, we were very excited because we’ve been very interested in the country of Burundi and things he’s doing to help the people over there,” said Elisa Tremblay. “It was another way for us to get to know that part of the world better and we also thought it was good for our kids to have this experience and meet someone who was not part of our ordinary world. It’s been great, we’ve laughed a lot. We’re surprised at how similar we are and how small the world really is in a lot of ways.”
The Paalmans hosted a male foreign exchange student several years ago and had raised a son. So having a young woman in their household is a new experience for them. “I was all excited about having a young student come and live with us again and I had this realization, oops, it’s not a boy. What do I do with a girl? They keep assuring me that what goes on in a day with these young people is normal,” said Richard Paalman with a laugh.
“Sixteen-year-old girls are lots of drama,” added Julia Paalman. “It was quite different than having a young man. We’ve become accustomed to her. Our dog is getting used to her. It’s a new experience.”
It was a bit harder for Igiraneza to get used to the dog. In Burundi people generally don’t keep dogs in their houses but she said that she and Gracie are good friends now.
Elisa Tremblay considers both of the girls to be high achievers and she expects they’ll make the best of this opportunity. “We talked about the importance of them taking this experience and going back and being an ambassador, a leader in their country. It’s such a great experience for them here that they can go back and share that with the people of their country in really profound ways.”
For more information about the Burundi Education Fund, visit www.educateburundi.org.