By Josephen Tifiano  

Graça Muzela grew up in Angola, moved to Maine in 2019, and is now finishing his freshman year at Washington County Community College (WCCC). Recently, Graça was named the college’s Student of the Year, an unusual accomplishment for someone who arrived in the U.S. so few years ago,  unable to speak English at the time.  

When he came to Maine, Graça said he had difficulty adjusting, primarily because he didn’t know any English. He was 17 years old and was placed into the 11th grade. The other students in the class understood everything, he was sure, but he said he was lost. He wanted to understand and ask for help, but the teachers couldn’t help him because of the language barrier. They didn’t know Portuguese or French, which were languages familiar to Graça, and could only explain the material to him in English.  

So he started going to a community center where college students helped him for two hours every day. As a result, he progressed rapidly in his understanding of English, and in his classes. 

From there, he applied to Washington County Community College, where he is now majoring in electrical engineering, something that has interested him since he was young. The program is rigorous, and after finishing it, Graça will be able to apply for a general license. “That is 578 hours of education and 45 hours of code. Something like 7,000 or 8,000 hours of work to get the job license,” he said. “Overall, it’s pretty much intensive and advanced.” 

But Graça’s hard work has obviously paid off, as his award demonstrates. His participation in activities was a factor in his nomination. One of his activities is the College Success Program, which includes welcoming incoming students to the college. He described what WCCC is looking for in a nominee. “It’s based on how you behave during the school year, what you are doing for the school, and your grades. They try to see all those things,” he said. 

Q: Was this the major you always wanted to pursue, or was it something you fell into at WCCC? 

A: When I was a kid, one of my neighbors was an electrician. So he used to talk to me about many things about electricity. I used to watch him go to work, and he showed me videos about what he had been doing. Then I knew that I would want to be like him. And I came up with the idea here to be an electrician, but … I didn’t know a lot of English. And people [from a variety of backgrounds]were saying to me there are tons of technical words in electrical engineering, and it will complicate things. Choose a major that will be easy for you, and that you can understand.  

Q: How do you balance school and any outside activities with an intense major? 

A: Yeah, it is so hard. The teachers are quick with everything, and the schedule is not easy. I have four classes every day. The first class starts from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., the second one is from 12:30 to 2 pm, the third from 2 to 3 p.m., and the fourth from 3:30 to 5 p.m. I’ve got a busy schedule. I am also a residential advisor. So, I’m pretty busy because we are just two RAs. After finishing everything by 5 p.m., I have to go to the RA office and stay there until 9:30. Yeah. So it’s challenging, but it’s pretty cool because I’m mentoring a lot of people and helping others, and that is something. 

Q: Are there favorite or rewarding moments you have had so far at WCCC? 

A: It was seeing my academic colleagues doing well. I have colleagues that have been in the electrical field for a while and are more advanced than me. It’s nice seeing them working hard and doing everything perfectly. So that inspired me to be like them, too. … I like to see people working hard, which makes me want to work hard. I want to be in the top two of my class. So it motivates me to work hard for that accomplishment.