The extreme joy in Mereille Nimana’s face when she walks across the stage for fall graduation will hide an equally extreme trauma that marked her journey to a Hinds Community College diploma.
“For me to get here was a miracle,” Nimana said. “I didn’t expect this for my life after my parents died.”
Nimana, 22, grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in its eastern city of Goma, along the border with Rwanda. Both of her parents, a brother and a sister of hers were killed when she was 13 as fighting in the region continued even after the formal end of the Second Congo War almost a decade beforehand.
She doesn’t know for sure who killed them, but the scene is etched indelibly in her mind.
“They were killed in front of my eyes,” she remembers. “I was just a little girl, so I didn’t understand much of what was going on. I can remember people talking to my daddy about business stuff. They had covers over their heads, so I didn’t see them. I think it was people working with the government. If you have something good going on there, people like to come in and just destroy things.”
She came to Mississippi from Africa at 15 as part of a refugee program led by Catholic Charities and lived in the state foster care system through her teenage years. Fluent in six other languages – including French and Swahili, but not English – meant she had to start from scratch to communicate with others once in the states. “I taught myself to get started speaking English by watching cartoons and watching videos on the internet,” she said.
After attending both Raymond and Terry high schools, she came to Hinds and, during some initial tribulations with academics, remembered something she’d always believed.
“When you humble yourself, a lot of opportunity will open up for you,” she said.
Since then, she’s humbled herself while inspiring others around her, teachers included, as she plans to graduate with an associate in arts degree and pursue a career in either psychology or counseling. She will be among others participating in ceremonies Dec. 15 at the Muse Center on the Rankin Campus. A network of friends and supporters she’s met while coming to school have helped her stay in school by paying for things like living expenses and transportation.
She began her studies with multiple developmental courses in reading, math and English. Over time, she visited the resources available at Hinds that help students succeed – the Student Success Center, the Writing Center, the Math Lab and advising and counseling services, to name just a few.
“She has been a familiar face in the success center, always reaching out for help when she needed it and even helping other students by sharing her amazing story of persistence and resilience,” said Dr. Jennifer Rodgers, director of the Student Success Center at the Raymond Campus. “She took the time to put in extra effort to get support and used everything available to her to be successful.”
For Nimana, staying successful after college means being able to help others keep their own education front and center in their lives. Her own backstory, she says, is the perfect teaching tool.
“The things I went through can help me show children to not lose hope in any situation. If I did it, you can do it, too. Being here has helped me learn about people and understand them. A lot of people take their education for granted and just want to party. The party can come later, but now is the time to focus on your books!”
All those who’ve helped her be able to turn that tassel Dec. 15 feel counseled simply by knowing her these past few years.
“She is a remarkable young lady, and my life has been greatly enriched by having her be a part of it,” said Melissa Woods, instructor and coordinator of the college’s Excel program, which involves academic support courses. “I’ve never met someone who has been through so much and yet has such a positive outlook on life.”