Professor giving a lecture to students in old main

From Rwanda to Wofford to the future

Graduating senior Engelmann finds his place a world away

Yves Engelmann Commencement 382x255
Yves Engelmann, Class of 2016
2016-05-17

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – When Yves Engelmann got his acceptance letter to Wofford College, the young man from Rwanda who had never stepped foot in South Carolina – much less onto the Wofford campus – read it in disbelief. That was nothing compared to when he read the subsequent letter from the college’s Bonner Scholars program telling him his entire four-year college career would be paid for in full.

“I was skeptical that I even got into Wofford,” says Engelmann, who graduated Sunday, May 16, from Wofford. He was living in Maine with his uncle and cousins at the time he received the letter. “I wanted to attend, but I couldn’t afford to.” He had applied to numerous colleges around the country, initially wanting to attend Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, an institution similar to Wofford. No financial aid was available to him there, and he was discouraged, until a cousin attending Converse College suggested he look into Wofford.

Once he was accepted, the question of being able to pay arose again. That’s when he was encouraged to apply for a Bonner Scholarship, which would provide tuition in exchange for his volunteering hours upon hours of volunteer service.

Still, shortly after receiving the acceptance letter, Engelmann got another letter in the mail – on a Friday – the award letter from the Bonner program. “It said they would give me $50,000 per year for four years at Wofford. I thought, ‘This cannot be true. This is not true.’”

He showed the letter to his uncle, who also was skeptical. “Wofford is a very good school, and they were telling me I could go tuition-free. We wondered whether it was a scam. ‘What’s the catch,’ we thought. Maybe I would get to South Carolina and they would kidnap me and put me to work or steal my kidney or something.” It being a Friday, Engelmann had no time to check into the letter’s validity. “I couldn’t wait until Monday,” he says.

Monday came, and he called Ramon Galiñanes, the Bonner Scholars program coordinator at Wofford. “I asked him, ‘Does your copy of the letter say the same thing as what I received?’ I couldn’t believe it was true. I needed him to verify it.”

Even his mentor volunteered to drive him from Maine to Spartanburg, confessing only after they arrived that he wanted to see for himself what Engelmann was getting into, half expecting to find themselves in a scary, sketchy place where someone, indeed, was waiting to kidnap him or steal a body part.

After all he had been through in his life, Engelmann realized everything had paid off. He was going to college – and he wouldn’t have to pay with a kidney or indentured service. He wouldn’t have to pay at all. “It was surreal,” he says.

To understand why Engelmann was so incredulous, you have to go back almost to the beginning. He was born Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, where from April to July 1994, some 800,000 Rwandans – mostly of the Tutsi minority – were slaughtered in the Rwandan Genocide, including his father, Mashyaka Tite, murdered when the Wofford graduating senior was just 2 years old.

His mother, Mukakabano Evelyne, had to work several jobs to support Engelmann and later his two younger brothers, Banamwana Hoffman Prince and Cyubahiro Guillain. That often meant she was away from home, for weeks or months at a time. Other family members and a nanny took care of him.

When Engelmann was old enough, he went to school but did not feel that he gained much from the experience. “I don’t remember learning anything from the first grade to third grade,” he says. Also, he adds, his family was poor and he endured a lot of discrimination in school during that time. “I was put in the back of the class, where all the dumb students were (school officials had assumed he wasn’t smart). Everybody spoke French, and I knew very little French. Everybody thought we – those of us in the back of the class – were the dumbest people. It was hard. Kids looked down on us.”

He attended a private elementary school from fourth grade through sixth grade after receiving a scholarship. Things got better, and Engelmann managed to make good friends and decent grades. After finishing elementary school – the sixth grade – Rwandan students are required to take an exam to determine which school they would attend after that. After the ninth grade, another exam is taken and students pick a field of study to pursue. They then compete for the limited seats in the best schools. Following that, successful students are able to graduate high school.

Engelmann moved to Maine in 2010, while he was in the 12th grade. While he did well, taking honors and advanced placement courses, he came up short by a credit and a half in English, keeping him from being able to graduate. His guidance counselor could have given him a pass – while his English wasn’t perfect, it was good and other students at the same level were being passed – but instead he was given the choice of going back to school to earn the credits or “be done,” meaning he wouldn’t get a diploma. He would have to go to work, probably earning meager wages.

“I was living in Maine with my uncle by then, and I was frustrated. I thought, ‘This is not America,’” he says. “My guidance counselor was supposed to help me, but she didn’t.”

Engelmann walked over to the library that was across the street from his uncle’s home to ponder his future. It was too late to apply to colleges, even if he could get clearance to graduate. Maine has a large immigrant population, including Rwandan refugees, he says, and the community has a lot of people who haven’t completed their education and aren’t working or are working at lower-wage jobs. He could have decided to join them. “I sat down and wrote a list of the pros and cons of going back to school, and the list of pros was longer. School was way more important than anything else, and I thought it would give me more time to put in my college applications anyway.”

Plus, Engelmann thought, “I hadn’t reached my full potential yet.”

After talking to Galinanes, getting that early reassurance that the Bonner Scholarship was a reality, Englemann says, “I had the feeling that everything had paid off. Going back to school was the right thing to do.”

He’s gotten much closer in his four years at Wofford. The computer science major, who also received a minor in mathematics, was a Dean’s List student.

Yves Engelmann with ARCH studentsAs a Bonner Scholar, he has been required to volunteer at least 10 hours a week during the academic year and 280 hours over each of at least two summers. Engelmann has done most of his service with the ARCH afterschool program in the Arcadia community west of Wofford’s campus. There, he mentors, tutors and reads to the 1st grade students the program serves.

His favorite thing is recess with the youngsters. “I love recess because of the joy the children exhibit while releasing all the energy stored up during the day,” he says, adding that recess also is a break for him. “My little recess away from the busy life at Wofford.”

For his service, Engelmann received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Commencement, recognizing excellence in character and humanitarian service. He also received another of Wofford’s highest honors – the John Bruce Memorial Award, given to the senior Bonner Scholar who has best demonstrated an overall commitment to the program and its goals. It was presented at the college’s recent Honors Convocation.

“The senior Bonner Scholars recognize the one among them they believe best demonstrates the ideals of the program – authentic service to community, personal development and positive leadership of others,” says Jessalyn Wynn Story, director of Bonner Scholars, Service Learning and the Center for Community-Based Learning. “Yves leads by example with a kind heart, strong character and committed work ethic. One of his fellow scholars said, ‘Yves reminds me to maintain a deep, long-lasting hope.’ Another said, ‘Yves lives what Bonner is all about and inspires others to do the same. Over the past four years, he has challenged and motivated me to be not only a better Bonner but a better person.’”

Receiving the award was humbling for Engelmann. “I’m not the person who gets awards or recognition. I prefer to be behind the scenes making things happen. I’m not used to the spotlight,” he says. He was surprised by the honor and even more humbled by the words of his Bonner cohorts. “It brought a sense of awareness to me. I didn’t know they thought of me in those regards. It was so encouraging and so surprising. I didn’t know what to do with it. I wasn’t expecting it.”

Following graduation, Engelmann will move to Phoenix, Ariz., where he will be a software developer and financial analyst for C. Myers Corp. “I am lucky enough to have gotten a job before graduating,” he says.

“These four years have gone by in a flash, it’s been rough. I wouldn’t do it again, but I wouldn’t take anything back,” Engelmann says. “It’s been a great time and I have worked so much. I want to tell everyone how thankful I am, I want to express my gratitude to everything Wofford has given me. I could never pay the people here back. It’s been a heck of a changing experience.

“My Bonners Scholar experience will stick with me the rest of my life,” he adds.

Engelmann anticipates getting into some type of community service in Phoenix. “I can’t see my life without Wofford, without ARCH and without Bonners. I’m hoping I can get there and look around and see where I can serve,” he says. “One of the things I’ve learned from Bonners is there’s always a need. We need to address it – figure out how to do that and how to change things.

One hard part about graduating and moving across the country, Engelmann says, is leaving the children in ARCH. “They remind me of the difficulties I’ve had in my life, and how important it is for me to be there. These kids boost my ego so much. They like me to tell them about college.”

When he looks at the 1st-graders he mentors, he sees a glimpse of his own childhood – not the youngster who some thought was not smart enough to go anywhere or the class clown and “troublemaker” others thought he was – but someone with potential, someone who needs to be told they are great, someone who needs to know they’re important.

“Hopefully,” he adds, “one or two of them will want to be like ‘Mr. Yves’ … or better.”