Of the many aspects of Pascal Habineza’s life that are new to him—speaking English daily, the social customs of ever-smiling Americans, and waking up at the crack of dawn to watch his beloved Arsenal soccer team play matches on European time—the one that he relishes most is skateboarding. He taught himself, he says. “Surprisingly, it didn’t take me that long. Only one day.” Now, it’s his preferred mode of transport as he makes his way from class to class on the Harvey Mudd campus and over to Claremont McKenna College, where he plays volleyball to unwind from the rigors of his academic schedule.
Habineza ’20 is from Rwanda, a mountainous country in East Africa. He grew up in the capital city of Kigali, where he attended Bridge2Rwanda, a college preparatory school intent on linking Rwandan students with higher education opportunities in the United States. His college counselor homed in on Harvey Mudd for its excellent mathematics, science and engineering programs, but what Habineza remembers most distinctly are the pictures she showed him of Mudders skateboarding in the sunshine. The images reminded him of a dream he’d had as a child and as a fan of the American superhero show, The Flash, to be able to run at superhuman speeds. Skateboarding, he figured, was the next best thing.
He was surrounded by friends from Bridge2Rwanda when he found out that he’d been accepted to Harvey Mudd. The celebration, caught on video and posted to the College’s Facebook page, shows an ecstatic Habineza being lifted to the shoulders of his equally ecstatic classmates, who break out into chants of “Har-vey Mudd! Har-vey Mudd!”
Now 15,000 miles away from his family and childhood friends, Habineza stays busy with his classes, which include chemistry, mechanics, linear algebra, biology and chemistry lab. He finds his mathematics and science classes manageable. It’s his critical inquiry and writing classes, which require him to construct arguments in a language that’s not his first or his second (those would be Kinyarwanda and French, respectively), that pose a greater challenge. But Habineza has an indefatigably optimistic attitude. “I would say that it is fortunate that I find writing more challenging because I get to dedicate more hours of practice to it.” He enjoys working with Mudd’s coordinator of English Language Learning, Suzanne Fontaine, when he needs extra help.
I don’t know where life will take me, but I know that I owe something to my country and that one day I will probably work indirectly on helping young Rwandan kids get the kind of good education I am getting, which I am very thankful for.
– PASCAL HABINEZA ’20
He’s also enjoyed taking excursions with his host family to some of the iconic spots of the west: Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam. And though he’s marveled at these land-bound spectacles, his interest lies in outer space.
“I’m fascinated by speed, existence of extraterrestrial life and interstellar travel,” he says, adding that he’ll probably major in engineering, with a focus in guidance, navigation and control. After graduating from HMC, he plans to get a master’s degree in avionics.
“From there, I don’t know where life will take me, but I know that I owe something to my country and that one day I will probably work indirectly on helping young Rwandan kids get the kind of good education I am getting, which I am very thankful for.” He sees Rwanda as a country more than worth his allegiance; it’s one that’s already made great strides toward rebuilding itself after the trauma of its 1994 genocide. “Rwanda is the safest and one of the fastest developing countries in Africa today,” he says. “To many peoples’ surprise, the healing process has been very quick despite the degree of unspeakable things which happened, maybe because the roots of the genocide were from the outside— colonization—as opposed to being from the inside.”
Habineza will return to Kigali this summer to visit his mother and sisters. He says his friends sometimes ask him how he can stand being away from home for so long. “I just embrace what comes my way. It’s all about what you tell your brain.”