By Raymond P. Diamond

“[Nursing school] was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, especially because of my background.” – Samuel Mulunda

Born and raised in Zambia, Samuel Mulunda is now a  Maine resident, and happily employed as a Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit Nurse with Maine Medical Center, but his journey to fulfilling employment has been uphill all the way. In 2019, soon after he enrolled at Southern Maine Community College (SMCC), Mulunda realized that he was at a fundamental disadvantage in comparison to many of his fellow students, and concluded that he had no choice but to put a disproportionately higher amount of energy and time into his academics if he wanted to be successful. And he did want to be successful, so he put in that effort. Luck played a role too – along the way, others lent a hand. 

Mulunda grew up in Zambia and graduated from high school in 2015.  He speaks French, Swahili, Lingala, Bemba – a language spoken mainly in northeastern Zambia – and his mother’s first language, which is Cilubà. From an early age, his mother told him to hold onto his identity, no matter what happened.

After high school, he volunteered at a health clinic in a refugee camp in Zambia. Organized by Brave Heart, which is a Norwegian organization founded by former refugee Stephen Kaumba, the clinic had a department offering ‘healing and therapy’ for refugees who had escaped war torn or other traumatizing conditions and were living with symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Mulunda volunteered as a community health worker within the clinic and as a lab technician. This work awakened an interest in medicine. Among other things, Mulunda learned about HIV and HIV transmission between mothers and their children, prenatal and postnatal care, and what proper nutrition should look like.

Mulunda’s first stop in the U.S. was in Wichita, Kansas, in January 2019. He had  a student visa, and was planning to attend college. Unfortunately, shortly after he arrived alone in the U.S., Mulunda’s financial system fell apart, and he found himself unable to pursue his studies, and entirely on his own.

Through word of mouth with some of his Congolese and Zimbabwean contemporaries living in Kansas, Mulunda learned of Maine’s welcoming environment, supportive education programs, and General Assistance Program. He moved to Maine in February of 2019, with just a few hundred dollars to his name. Upon his arrival, Mulunda was given a bed to sleep in at the homeless shelter. Others living at the shelter recommended finding community, and like-minded people, through The Spoken Word Tabernacle, a church located near the University of Southern Maine.

Through the church, Mulunda was fortunate enough to be connected to a Congolese family that welcomed him into their home with open arms. The family Mulunda lived with had arrived one year earlier than he had, and their mentor, Douglas Babkirk, who had helped them along their journey of adjustment to Maine, asked Mulunda to tell him his story. Mulunda shared his true passion for medicine, and Babkirk suggested that he investigate SMCC, to explore his options. At the time, Mulunda was dreaming of working as a doctor in either pediatrics or gynecology.

Before enrolling for classes at SMCC – which was to become his alma mater – Mulunda had no idea a decade of expensive schooling lay ahead if he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. He did not yet understand how the U.S. higher education system worked.

After consulting with advisors, Mulunda decided to pursue a degree in nursing instead. He attributes this choice, and much of his success to his student advisor, Jodie Lane, who he described as, “monumental in helping [him] navigate my educational path.” He emphasized that he appreciates her to this day.

Mulunda graduated with his degree, and has pursued his passion for practicing medicine, but said there were significant barriers and struggles that he faced throughout his educational journey. He described a certain sense of loneliness, partly because he went to school during the pandemic, and partly because he was the only Black, immigrant, African man in his nursing program of nearly 50 participants. 

Mulunda said he did not know what racism was until he came to the U.S. At SMCC he did not experience direct comments or acts of racism, but did feel sometimes people spoke to him differently than they spoke to others. He also felt he needed to adapt his manner to the culture of his new environment, and didn’t always know how. But he eventually found a community, and he remembers many people who helped him. 

“I like to look and see the good in every situation and every person… I saw a lot of people that wanted to connect and be supportive,” he said.

For example, the library and library technicians at SMCC, were instrumental in helping him develop his skills. Mulunda knew how to read and write, he said, but recollected that he often had to commit to studying in the library from 6:00 p.m. to midnight because of gaps in his experience and education. For example,  before attending SMCC, he had never written a research paper.

Mulunda said he is happy to be at Maine Health, and looks forward to what his future holds – including, he hopes, permanent resident status in Maine.

Samuel Mulunda and Amjambo Africa reporter Raymond Diamond