Prudent Ndihokubwayo spent years sweeping up the notes and wrappers left behind in classrooms at the University of Southern Maine. All the while, his eye was on a precious piece of paper he had his sights on – a college diploma. So May 7 is a day Ndihokubwayo is unlikely to forget anytime soon, because that’s the day he graduated from USM with a bachelor’s degree in English after a decade of struggle.
He could barely speak English 10 years ago. But that language gap was only one of many challenges he faced when he fled Burundi in 2011 and arrived in Maine with just a few changes of clothes in hand, alone except for memories of the family he had left behind.
“I didn’t have any plan because I didn’t even know that I was going to come here,” Ndihokubwayo said. “I was not planning to come here. It just happened so fast. ‘Hey, there’s trouble. You’ve got to go.’ ”
Ndihokubwayo doesn’t like to talk about the specific reasons for his departure, but his uncle arranged to send him off to join a small community of Burundian expatriates in Maine.
USM was one of the few employers that he found willing to take a chance on someone with limited English skills, and without status as a citizen. But his lack of a driver’s license only qualified him to join the custodial crew – and that on a temporary basis.
However, Ndihokubwayo’s work ethic soon made him indispensable. He worked overnights and early mornings – whenever and wherever management needed him. On his days off from work, he stayed busy as a student of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) through Portland Adult Education.
English is his fourth language after Kirundi, Swahili, and French. His linguistic fluency, and personal understanding of the immigrant experience, made him even more important to his managers, who often asked him to help communicate with co-workers who shared similar backgrounds.
“Prudent reminds me to pause and practice gratitude for our home we share at USM,” said Kristen Case, Director of Facilities Management for Custodial Services. “He reminds me that we pass people in the halls [who] face challenges greater than mine. He reminds me to be kind and supportive even when it’s difficult. He reminds me that our past, present, or future challenges will not limit our ability to be our best selves.”
When Ndihokubwayo passed his driver’s test, a full-time USM job was waiting for him, along with an eventual promotion to third-shift manager. His ambition, however, was education. And one of the benefits of his new staff position was free access to university-level courses.
Before leaving Burundi, he had completed a year of higher education, where he had planned to pursue a degree in Business Administration. His first instinct was to resume those studies at USM, but before long he found himself drawn to the arts.
“I have goals and dreams that I might not have had when I was back home (in Burundi),” Ndihokubwayo said. “I would never have dreamt of being a writer if I was home, because I didn’t grow up noticing people write. But here, there’s inspiration around, and people write and pushed me to do that.”
He is working on a memoir detailing the first 10 years of his life in the U.S. He has planned sequels for each following decade. As a Cinema Studies minor, he’d also love to see Hollywood adapt his story into a movie.
But his goal isn’t self-aggrandizement. He measures success by his ability to inspire other people. For children in Burundi, in particular, he knows how much having a role model would mean, one who celebrated their heritage on the world stage.
“When you have a gift, it’s not just for you,” Ndihokubwayo said. “A gift is like a fruit. It’s like an apple. You never see an apple eating itself. It’s for other people to enjoy. I see my gift as a fruit for other people to enjoy.”
Based on a profile by Michael Kmack, USM Public Affairs