Valens Nteziyaremye can’t go home to the family awaiting his return.
In the two years he has spent apart from them, he has missed birthdays and weddings. He has created a life they may never see.
The soft-spoken 26-year-old can’t afford to visit his family in Rwanda, so he’s saving up.
Before arriving at UF, Valens was one of more than a thousand students who traveled to the U.S. as part of the Rwanda Presidential Scholars Program. In collaboration with the Rwandan government and U.S. universities, the program provides undergraduate scholarships to Rwanda’s brightest students.
Through the program, Valens completed his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 2012.
Before making the more than 16-hour trek to Arkansas with 25 other students, Valens underwent a rigorous selection process. Even with his high national examination scores, he still had to pass a round of interviews and prove his English skills.
His mother’s belief in him led Valens to become one of the top students in Rwanda, he said.
“She told me, ‘School will be your future,’” he said. “My parents didn’t even have a high school degree. I said ‘I’m going to get the education my parents didn’t have the chance to get.’”
Valens lost his mother at age 12, after a time when war and genocide had changed Rwanda.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the killing spree Valens and his siblings lived through.
During the chaos in 1994, Valens and his family fled to a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
During his four years in the camp, Valens attended a makeshift school. Sitting atop rocks, he followed along as the teacher used charcoal and cardboard for daily lessons.
Valens entered the camp at age 7 and left four years later to return to Rwanda, where 800,000 people died. With the help of his older brother, Valens watched over his four siblings, the youngest of whom had just turned 1.
At UF, Valens, a mechanical and aerospace engineering Ph.D. candidate, has not stopped supporting his siblings.
He uses any extra money to pay for his siblings’ schooling in Rwanda.
“If I don’t do it, I don’t think anyone else will do it,” he said.
The UF fellowship student is working on a National Science Foundation-funded project on breast cancer biopsy needles, making them more efficient and reducing the pain to the patient.
Caring for others comes naturally to Valens, said Hitomi Yamaguchi Greenslet, UF associate professor in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
Greenslet oversees Valens’ work on the needle project and assigned him as a mentor for high school students.
“He has a lot of difficulties back home,” she said. “He knows how to deal with his personal and professional life.”
Valens’ start at UF came with a loneliness he did not have in Arkansas. When he arrived in Gainesville, he no longer had a group of Rwandan friends he could relate to.
David Worthington Hahn, professor and chairman in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said Valens’ transition to UF was a bit difficult.
“He came here, and he was on his own,” Hahn said. “He always impressed me with his smile and his outlook. Anyone who spends time with him can’t help but like him.”
It was during the first year that Valens experienced a night that challenged his positive outlook on life.
Valens was driving back home after meeting with his academic adviser when he was pulled over. He said the officers could not understand him, and an argument ensued. Valens was then arrested but released shortly after with no charges.
“The guy — he chose to stop me because he thought I looked suspicious,” he said. “It’s not the first time it’s happened, though.”
When most UF students went home for Christmas break to spend time with their families, Valens spent his time working in the research lab. One night, as he was riding on his bike from work, Valens was stopped by a cop. He said the officer told him that he looked like a black man they were searching for.
“That’s how it is,” Valens said.
But Valens is too busy to worry about his past troubles. He often tries not to stray too far from his research lab. Valens said he believes he can overcome anything with hard work and prayer.
“There was time I thought about giving up everything I was doing,” he said. “But I said, ‘What am I going to do after I give up?’ That’s what keeps me going.”
When he needs to talk, Valens’ roommate is there to listen — except English is often not a part of their conversation. They speak their native language of Kinyarwanda instead.
Valens’ roommate, Olivier Nsengiyumva, a 24-year-old UF Ph.D. candidate, arrived in Gainesville from Oklahoma Christian University in August. In Oklahoma, Olivier, like Valens, participated in the Rwanda Presidential Scholars Program. Before becoming roommates, Olivier and Valens attended the same high school and were only acquaintances. It took travelling more than 7,500 miles from Rwanda to make them close friends.
Olivier said he can’t believe how far the two of them have come.
“It’s like a dream come true,” he said.
Valens has two more years at UF before graduating with his Ph.D.
He said his dad doesn’t understand what a Ph.D. is. He just wants his son to come home soon.
“My dad is always saying, ‘When you are going to graduate?’” he said.
For now, Valens wants to start helping his home country.
He’s launching an organization, called Nature of Life, with a friend back in Rwanda to reduce poverty one donation at a time.
“I’ve been given the chance to do what I’m doing, so I need to help,” he said. “You have to go through some difficult times before you achieve something.”
[A version of this story ran on page 8 on 4/9/2014 under the headline "Rwandan student reflects on genocide, works toward Ph.D."]
Valens Nteziyaremye, 26, poses for a photo.