June 2, 2004
CONTACT: Mike Stepanovich, 661/664-2456 or mstepanovich@csub.edu

Adiel Uzabakiriho has every reason to be down on life – he has gradually gone blind, and he lost many relatives during the Rwandan civil war. Instead the 39-year-old is brimming with enthusiasm.

“Sometimes people with disabilities think they can’t make it,” he said. “But here in the United States you can do anything.”

His credo has propelled him to earn his master of social work degree at California State University, Bakersfield, where he will graduate with his classmates on June 12. Not only that, but he’s been accepted to the doctoral program at Loma Linda University in the fall. He then plans to pass on his knowledge and insights as a teacher to other disabled students.

“I enjoy teaching,” he said. “I was an elementary school teacher a long time ago in Rwanda.”

He was also a musician in his homeland, and in fact it was music that brought him to America in the first place. “I did lots with music,” he said. “I was famous there. I was taught music by American missionaries. … I thought I would come to this country, study music, and return to teach music in Rwanda.”

Fate had different ideas. Two years after he arrived in the United States, civil war broke out in Rwanda, in central Africa. That war’s legacy is a genocide of near unfathomable proportions. Uzabakiriho lost many relatives; his grief over his losses is the only thing that seems to cloud his sunny disposition.

At the same time he began losing his eyesight. Realizing that it would affect his musical career, he changed majors, studying sociology at CSU San Bernardino.

The loss of his eyesight was a result of congenital myopia. He said that while he was in Michigan, he began wearing contacts, and wore them for seven years. But the contacts somehow caused scars on his corneas. He had a cornea transplant, but the medication gave him trouble and caused the onset of glaucoma. All told he had seven surgeries, but still wound up losing his eyesight. “The last time I drove was in the summer of 1996,” he said. “After that I could not. It’s frustrating.”

After graduating CSUSB, he decided he wanted to go into social work, and looked around for a master of social work program. He found it at CSUB. “I liked the campus,” he said. “Plus I am a Christian, and I met so many Christian people here I decided to come.”

While he liked what he found at CSUB, he was a little reluctant to start the MSW program because he was still recuperating from his eye surgeries. “I was waiting at home to recover , and someone told me you don’t have to wait, they have services for the disabled at CSUB. I learned how people here are working hard to help students with disabilities. You find that you’re not the only one with a disability, and that’s helpful. I learned about other blind people who are doing it – one blind person got his master’s, and I learned of another who got a doctorate. So I said to myself, if those people can make it, then I can make it. This country is so encouraging. That’s what motivated me.”

And once in the MSW program, which has taken him three years to complete, he reaped an unanticipated bonus. “I discovered so much about myself,” he said. “I began learning about my past history, I lost so many relatives in the civil war, my eyesight. I was going through a grieving process, and found that others were experiencing the same thing. So I thought, I’m not the only one. … I learned a lot about self-determination. I decided to go on and be a role model to other students with disabilities who think they cannot make it.”

While at CSUB, he entered the student research competition. His project, which won first place, was an exploratory study of refugee immigrant experiences in the United States. He interviewed eight refugee immigrants from eight different countries – Borundi, Cambodia, Rwanda, Cuba, Ethiopia, Haiti, Thailand and Vietnam – in four different states: California, Arizona, Florida and Georgia. “I found that one of the things they experience is coping strategies, their adjustment to the American environment. That’s still a hidden area in America, and I wanted to open it up to social work.”

Janice Clausen, director of the Services for Students with Disabilities office, said Uzabakiriho has been an inspiration. “I think Adiel is a great role model for all our students,” she said. “He’s motivated, hard-working – I wish we had a hundred more Adiels. Adiel uses the technology this campus provides. He’s just an awesome student.”

That support was important to Uzabakiriho. “Having enough social support was the key to my success,” he said. “So I came here. I didn’t know anybody, but some months later I had lots of friends. Classmates would take me home after class. My social work professors were willing to go the extra mile to help me. Knowing you’re with people who encourage you is part of my success.”