ROCK SPRINGS – When a few faculty and staff members at Western Wyoming Community College told student Elvis Nkezabahizi that he would make a good nominee for the college’s Outstanding Graduate award, the young man from Rwanda, Africa said he felt flattered. When it was announced at Western’s annual awards banquet on April 30 that Elvis had been awarded that honor for 2015, the future architectural engineer said he was just as surprised by the number of nominations he had received – 13 – as he was by the fact that he had won.
“I didn’t know I had all of this support, all of these people keeping me in mind as an outstanding graduate,” Elvis said just a few days before the May 15 commencement ceremony at which he delivered an address to his fellow graduates.
“There are a lot of students that are really qualified that I could think of. I didn’t think I would have as much of a chance as the students I had in mind. So I was very surprised,” he said with a grin. “I was really happy about it. I am still.”
Elvis, 21, came to the United States from Rwanda to pursue studies in architectural engineering, a discipline that is not offered in his home country. He decided on that field because it combines his strengths and interests in drawing, math, and physics.
“I felt like it was something I was meant to do,” he explained. “Because I didn’t want to compromise my dreams of becoming an architectural engineer, I decided I would go to another country to follow my dreams and pursue education in architectural engineering.”
Elvis said that Western offered him the opportunity to begin his college career in a supportive learning environment at a nationally ranked two-year college – seventh in the nation, according to the most recent Washington Monthly College Guide ranking of two-year schools - with small class sizes and affordable tuition.
“I chose Western because it was easier for me to begin here, at a community college, rather than going to a four-year institution where there would be a lot of expenses for learning the same material academically,” he said. “Western was really affordable and it had a high rank.”
But the young international student discovered much more at Western than just an acclaimed and affordable place to earn his Associate of Science degree with an emphasis in engineering; Elvis also found a caring, close-knit educational community where fellow students, faculty and staff helped him to evolve from a slightly introverted personality into a student who became so comfortable interacting with peers and strangers that he joined Western’s Student Ambassadors group, which leads campus tours for prospective students and their parents.
“I was that kind of person who would just sit alone, keep a distance from people,” Elvis recalled. “But when I got to this community college…everyone was trying to talk to me, approaching me. Even though I was trying to sit alone, they would come and sit with me. I was like, ‘OK, there is no escape from this. I guess I’ve got to be involved.’ Once I (joined) the ambassadors, I really liked it, and I started to join other activities.”
Elvis has also worked as a peer tutor who helps students succeed in their physics and math courses. He is a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and he and a group of fellow students launched Student United Way of Southwest Wyoming. It’s the United Way’s first student group in the state.
“Basically, we volunteer and help the community in any way we can,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be at the school. We also do activities off campus. Whenever we are invited to help with an activity, be it a fundraiser, be it helping students to learn how to read, we go and help.”
Academically, Elvis said, Western has been a challenging but rewarding place to learn. He credited the faculty with going the extra mile to help students master the material.
“I like the fact that Western is such a small community,” he said. “I know people who I could ask for help if I needed help. There are small classes. You can ask your instructor for help. Even outside of class, they can find time for you.
“And it was easy to make friends,” he added. “Because the community is friendly, I was able to have a lot of friends and improve my English, because I have a lot of friends to talk to in English. That was one of the problems I was facing in Rwanda – I didn’t have people I could talk to in English.”
Elvis’s Outstanding Graduate award is just one of many examples of how Western recognizes student achievement. Elvis said he feels appreciated at Western, which is something he believed was lacking at his own high school in Rwanda.
“But Western, the very first semester, I did good, and I got a certificate from the president,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is really good. I feel like part of the school community.’ I feel like they know who I am and they know I am putting in hard work and they are really recognizing that. I felt good about it.”
Elvis already has a job lined up with a local engineering firm; he plans to work for a year in order to save money and continue working toward his bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering, possibly at the University of Wyoming.
Elvis said his public speaking class at Western and his involvement with the Student Ambassadors and other activities prepared him for the task of speaking in front of many hundreds of people like he did at commencement.
“I’m telling you, I wouldn’t stand in front of a crowd and say anything before I started being involved and talking with people. It really helped a lot, very much,” he said.