Orphaned at age 10 during the Rwandan Genocide, Eli Munyankindi didn't know if he'd ever finish high school. The tenacious young man did more than beat the odds—he shattered them. Munyankindi just completed a master's degree in speech-language pathology at the University of Utah College of Health. Later this summer, he'll return home to become his country's first specialist in the field.
"Nobody knows anything about speech-language pathology in my country, so my primary objective will be to educate people," said Munyankindi, who has accepted a position as a lecturer at the University of Rwanda and has even been invited to meet the president of Rwanda.
The 31-year-old hopes to find a clinical job in addition to his academic position so he can work one-on-one with individuals who stutter, have thick accents, lost speech abilities during wartime blasts or have other speech problems that hold them back from participating fully in society.
"Eli is bright, engaging and pragmatic," said Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders Chair Michael Blomgren, PhD, CCC-SLP, Munyankindi's adviser and the person who spearheaded the effort to establish the scholarship that brought Munyankindi to the University. "My expectations are high because I know Eli will rise to whatever challenge is put in front of him as he helps serve the needs of Rwandans suffering from communication impairments and helps to develop the profession of speech-language pathology in Rwanda."
During his three years at the U., Munyankindi saw himself not only as a student but an unofficial ambassador for Rwanda. Selected by classmates to speak at graduation, he gave a heart-wrenching and hopeful speech in which he thanked Blomgren and his professors for making his Utah adventure possible. He talked about his tragic childhood and about his country's perseverance.
"I was unlucky to be born in a third-world country, and worse, a country that experienced genocide that claimed the lives of a million people in just three months," Munyankindi said in the address. "However, I was lucky to be born in a country that rose from the ashes to reinvent itself, a country that believes its main resource is its people, and a country that believes the key to development is education. That country is Rwanda. That is why I am here."
Munyankindi will assume another life-long ambassadorship when he leaves the U.S.
"I will return to Rwanda as an ambassador of the University of Utah," Munyankindi told the crowd. "I will proudly carry the tradition of the College of Health because this is a college where we not only learned health sciences, but we also learned about collaborating, about different cultures, and we made friends from all corners of the country and the planet."
Blomgren said he would like to sponsor another student from Rwanda to earn a College of Health degree.
"This has been an excellent experience for all of us," Blomgren said. "We hope that Eli can be a point of contact for vetting another top student once he returns home."