He found a better life — and a degree — at GCU
This story is reprinted from the November 2019 issue of GCU Magazine. For a digital copy of the magazine, click here.
Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by David Kadlubowski
He arrived in Arizona from Burundi with $187 and a suitcase.
Four and a half years later at Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz., Jean Steve Mfuranzima gave a commencement speech that was picked to appear in The Nation magazine among those from famous actors, musicians and political figures for their urgency and passion:
“See yourself as the reflection of the person sitting next to you, the starving child somewhere, the homeless person that you pass by on your way to work, the woman who continues to endure suffering due to a male-dominated society, or the millions of immigrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea seeking a better life somewhere.”
One and a half years later, on Oct. 17, 2019, Mfuranzima stood on the lawn outside GCU Arena holding the documentation for a master’s degree in Public Administration from Grand Canyon University. And he held a child, 3 weeks old.
“This is for my daughter,” he said that day. “I dedicate my master’s to her.”
One day, she may recall her father’s story while clutching her own diploma. How he faced a personal dilemma in September 2013 that would alter his life. How he decided to flee the country where his parents led a middle-class life. His father, who died in 2011, had earned his master’s in the U.S. in 1991 and always stressed the importance of education.
Mfuranzima, 32, said he left Burundi and sought asylum because of human rights violations and political and personal violence that has plagued the Eastern African nation. He left behind his love, Ange Carine Kaneza.
“I came here with no family members,” he said. “When I came to Tucson I carried $187 and a suitcase.”
Helped by the Christ Church United Methodist’s Asylum Ministry and Northminster Presbyterian Church, he could endure while awaiting a chance to work once officially granted asylum in June 2014.
He worked four jobs – two as a caregiver and two as a translator – to save money for college, realizing his undergraduate degree in political science in Burundi would not transfer to the U.S. When Ange joined him a year later, she also picked up jobs.
“We worked 16 hours a day to put money away and go to school,” she said. “It was the year we got married.”
Not only was there no honeymoon, there were no children, which in their culture were common to have soon after marriage. “Either have children or pay for education,” said Mfuranzima, who friends call Steve.
Two years later they started school with no scholarships or loans to rely on. Steve finished with a 4.0 grade point average at Pima, and both he and Ange passed numerous proficiency tests toward enrollment for advanced degrees. Ange also got her practical nurse license.
Ange knew there was no stopping him when he got excited about what was next.
“A day later I started at GCU,” he said.
Working and studying online for his master’s from Tucson, Steve bore down, remembering that as the oldest of four children he is a role model for his family, remembering what his father told him about education.
“In America with social media and television, we see celebrities and sports athletes and models, but we have to realize we will not be athletes or famous singers,” he said. “Education is a big opportunity, especially for many immigrants who leave their culture of Third World countries where it is hard to get the internet or books. Education is something I dream about.”
Although he was an online student, he relished the opportunity to be involved, not only in Tucson’s church and civic organizations, but also at GCU.
Dahlak Aderob, a university counselor at GCU who enrolled Mfuranzima, saw a young man trying to find his way in America, much like her immigrant family, and networking like crazy to get ahead.
“While still maintaining a high GPA and working to pay cash for his master’s, he drove all the way down here to meet me,” she said. “He wanted to be very involved on the campus.”
The couple helped each other. Ange kept working. Steve had helped her with studies, determined that unlike women in Africa who aren’t treated equally, he wants her to fulfill her dream of getting a registered nurse degree.
But then Ange got pregnant. They had waited just long enough. Anneke Mackayla Mfuranzima was born Sept. 29, 2019, a day after her father made his last payment for college.
“Now my child will be there (at commencement). God is good!” Steve said.
With Anneke cradled in her mother’s arms, her father beamed at the sight of his family on the lawn that day.
He said he was looking at his daughter and thinking of his father: “Where he is he will say, ‘I am proud of you, my son.’ Look at me. In the same country where you got your degree.”
Steve also was thinking how he came to America by himself with little.
“Now I have a daughter. It’s one of my biggest accomplishments. There is something I can feel in my soul. This is my daughter. I did it for you. Now you get the torch.
“I want her to see a dad who came to America working, and he never quit. I want my daughter to be more. Maybe she’ll be a lawyer. Maybe president. Maybe she will say I had parents who sacrificed everything to get a master’s degree.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.