Dreams of Making a Continental Contribution
At Columbia, Bienvenu Didace Irafasha CC’22 found that his interest in meeting people of diverse backgrounds dovetailed with a passion for international relations.
As much as Rwanda native Bienvenu Didace Irafasha CC’22 wanted to go to college somewhere he could interact with people from all over the world, he knows he’ll eventually return home when his time at Columbia is done. “I’m always thinking about what I can do to make the most impact in my community, in Rwanda, in Africa,” he says.
Irafasha, a joint major in economics and political science, is still a few years from leaving — he’s in a dual-degree program with SIPA and began his master’s studies this fall. But he’s already dreaming of a career as a diplomat or an international trade expert. He points to the current political efforts around increasing intra-African trade, which historically had been limited.
“Fifty-five countries trading together; that would be massive,” he says. “If it happens, I’m imagining all of the working opportunities that people could have. It’s just one big economic revolution, and I want to be part of that.”
Irafasha grew up in a small town about two hours north of the Rwandan capital of Kigali and went to boarding school for his primary and secondary education. “People assume it was very rich, very privileged, and that’s not the case — probably 90 percent of our high schools are boarding schools,” he says. He describes life “in a bubble,” focused on classes, sports and extracurriculars; there wasn’t even internet access. “I felt I lost a lot of time not catching up with the world,” he says. “I wanted badly to go out and experience the other side.”
Thanks to a gap-year program designed to help students apply to schools in the United States and Europe, Irafasha quickly discovered that Columbia offered everything he wanted. “I knew New York as the capital of the globe, and the United Nations headquarters is here,” he says. “I was hooked.”
He did his research when it came to financial aid, and felt good about his chances of receiving a full scholarship. “I wouldn’t have to take student loans,” he recalls of his mindset. “I could come and concentrate on my classes. If I wanted a job, I could find one, but it wouldn’t be something I had to do.”
Indeed, Irafasha is the recipient of the Robert and Sara Rooney Scholarship Fund, which he learned about, along with the fact he’d been admitted early decision, in December 2017. He planned to keep the news a secret from his family until Christmas, but couldn’t hold it in.
“It’s one of those moments where you feel you’ve earned your parents’ respect,” he recalls. “Going into the [gap-year] program was my own initiative, and then the fact that I got a scholarship to Columbia — it was a testament that I was fully ready to take on responsibility and direct my own life.” He pauses then adds with a laugh, “Of course, I had to make sure to say it’s where Obama went to school.”
At Columbia, Irafasha found that his interest in meeting people of diverse backgrounds dovetailed with a passion for international relations. He’s been heavily involved with the United Nations Association, organizing University-wide events in association with U.N. Day, and the African Development Group, which engages members of the African Diaspora in research, initiative and service toward the continent’s sustainable development. This past summer he interned with the permanent mission for Rwanda at the U.N.
“Education for me has been as much about learning new things as unlearning old ones,” he says, noting that he’s had his preconceptions challenged by classes such as Contemporary Civilization and African Civilization. “It has been eye-opening to see that there is always a logic, however flawed, behind everything that happens. If I want to be part of change, I have to understand how things came to be in the first place.
“The contribution I can make here, I can’t even compare it to what I can do back home,” Irafasha adds. “I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be here without this scholarship. Financial aid has allowed me not just to say I’m pursuing my dreams, but also to keep on dreaming.”
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