The Path from Africa to Arkansas

by | Sep 1, 2010 | Features

Written by Christina Keaster

As we celebrated our Nation’s independence this past July, we heard the sounds of sparkling blue, white, and red light up the sky. Most Americans have the luxury of not knowing the sound of a grenade setting off, but for Dr. Alexis Nyandwi, an exploding grenade is what woke him up anxiously from his deep sleep… or so he thought. As he sat up from his bed and looked out his window for military presence, he realized he was no longer in Burundi, Africa, but at the University of Pennsylvania on the night of the fourth of July.

Dr. Alexis Nyandwi is a man of experiences, some experiences that will make you envious and others that will fill your heart with thankfulness. Nyandwi grew up with his four older siblings in Rotuvu, Burundi, a small town near the origin of the Nile River. He speaks three languages fluently: English, French, and Kirundi. Kirundi is spoken by natives of Burundi and Rwanda, with no dialect ever formed from it.
Living within two miles of three of Burundi’s former presidents, Nyandwi attended a European primary school where his passion for journalism was built through geography, television, and languages. He passed a rigorous arts and humanities exam to qualify for college, one which most students scored a 50%, Nyandwi passed very well.

“I was the commencement speaker at my high school. The chancellor wrote the speech for me, but I got to deliver it,” Nyandwi recalls. Encouraged by two high school professors to leave the small education potential offered in Burundi, Nyandwi took a scholarship to the University of Oran in Algeria. He studied English and news writing, and received a Bachelor’s degree in English.
Upon graduation, Nyandwi looked for a job and found his place at the National Radio and Television of Burundi in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura in 1993.

“I was fortunate to graduate and find a job after graduation,” says Nyandwi. Working as a producer of national and international news, Nyandwi describes his job responsibility as ‘busy’. “I produced a show three times per week, had my own show, and interviewed people for current stories during the week.”
In 1994, Nyandwi’s story coverage changed drastically from current stories to one story: the Rwandan genocide. Nyandwi found himself in the middle of the chaos between the two tribes at war, not just reporting the conflict, but dealing with it on a daily basis.

You could feel the tension in the air. There was a lot of military presence; you didn’t know how it would turn out.”

Being calm and minding his own business is how he dealt with the conflict on a daily basis, but that did not keep him from verbal harassment and witnessing death all around him. One of the tribes did not welcome him when he traveled to gather information for his news stories because they believed he resembled the opposition.

“That was very scary,” he recalls. The scariness factor sent many reporters to different parts of the world, “They [the reporters] didn’t have the energy to go out into the chaos every day, and it was hard to deal with the tension. The sounds of grenades are something you don’t want to live again.”
The genocide in Rwanda is one memory that Nyandwi will not forget. He worked for the station for another year and a half before embarking on an opportunity of a lifetime, and a chance to leave the tragedy surrounding him.

Frequenting the U.S. Embassy in Burundi to read about worldwide news, he learned about a highly completive program offered to students of high academic merit and leadership potential: The Fulbright Scholarship Program. The program, founded by late Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural

Affairs. Through the program, Nyandwi was paid to go to school. “They paid for my housing, food, and education… almost everything!” Receiving the Fulbright Scholarship wasn’t an easy task. Nyandwi waited a year just to hear back from the program
with an update that his application had been accepted.
“They offered me to study at Washington State. It felt really good to get accepted and be offered the scholarship. It was depressing to live in Burundi. I had never been to the United States, I was very excited!” He is the only child in his family to leave Burundi and venture out into the world, but that comes as no surprise as Nyandwi was always traveling to Europe as a young adult. Barcelona is his favorite. There is a nice atmosphere there and good weather.
The University of Pennsylvania was where Nyandwi spent three summer months in cultural adjustment training, learning the American lifestyle and how exploding fireworks sound like grenades. After those three months, he started graduate school at Washington State where he double majored in American studies and journalism.
It was at Washington State where his interest for even higher education sparked within him. Nyandwi completed another two years after his Master’s degree and finished with a Doctoral degree in Mass Communication. With eight years of higher education under his belt, he began his teaching career as Dr. Nyandwi.
Dr. Nyandwi began teaching journalism and communication at two east coast colleges and then at Eureka College in Illinois where Ronald Regan graduated. He traveled to Chicago to attend an International Communication Association conference and it was there that he met Dr. Donna Vocate, former Department Head of the Speech, Theatre, and Journalism Department at Arkansas Tech University. She was hiring for a journalism professor and Dr. Nyandwi was hired for the job! He began working in the fall of 2008.
“Tech is very friendly. I like all my classes. Global journalism is my favorite topic to talk about.”
When he isn’t teaching, Dr. Nyandwi enjoys watching the news, reading novels, writing, playing basketball, running, and listening to music. Most importantly, he treasures talking to his wife, Nzibariza, and daughter, Anna, who live overseas.
With all the experiences he has collected throughout his life, he desires to do one thing with them — pen them to paper. “I would like to write a book about my life and what I’ve experienced.”


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