When the term “senior year” come to mind, most individuals picture excitement as students finish up their required classes and move out into their next life journey. But for Joseph Iradukunda, senior year was his opportunity to turn his life around. The former business student shifted his studies to psychology and special education, opting to live a life doing what he loves over what is practical.
“When I came to Marist, I thought about either Education or Business,” he explained. “I chose Business and, even though I enjoyed some classes, some of them I did not see myself doing later on. So I ended up switching to Education.”
RWANDAN ROOTS— Several of Joseph’s childhood memories revolve around growing up in Itumba, a small village located within the city of Butare, Rwanda. He was born in Isave, another village in Butare, and moved to Itumba when he was five years old. While living in Rwanda, Joseph was predominantly raised by his grandmother, his aunt, and his uncles. His mother immigrated in 1998 to the United States to create a better life for her family and oftentimes visited Joseph. His father had died in the Rwandan genocide.
Joseph Iradakunda's Childhood Image
"I was born during the genocide, so I really did not get to experience it. Just even being in the U.S., I never really thought that would happen. I thank God for all the journey that I took in order to become a citizen."
“I was born during the genocide, so I really didn’t get to experience it,” reflected Joseph. “[But] when I was growing up, it actually had started to rebuild itself. The President started to push the idea that everybody is a Rwandan and they shouldn’t have divisions anymore, or labels.” Joseph attended a private school that held classes from Monday to Saturday. When not studying, he and his friends enjoyed playing games such as marbles, soccer, and racing. They listened to a podcast called Uru Na Na, one that he still listens to today via BBC. They saved coins to go and buy Fanta and amandazi. On the occasion the running water was shut off, he and his friends would walk six to ten miles to fetch water for their families.
“Of course you’re doing chores,” he reminisced, a large smile spread across his face. “But you use it also as an activity because you do it with friends.” Family life was also an integral part of Joseph’s childhood in Rwanda. His uncles taught him how to ride a bike and took him to the pool at a nearby hotel to learn how to swim. On Sundays they attended mass together, and young Joseph would repeatedly pray to be reunited with his mother again-for good. “We stayed in contact, we had faith in God that everything will work out, one day we will see each other again,” said Joseph. “And we did.”
Joseph Iradukunda is a Poughkeepsie local who originally grew up in Rwanda following the genocide, having immigrated to the United States when he was in the fourth grade. Joseph faced many challenges within the United States, among those being a language barrier and incidents of domestic abuse. Upon his move to Poughkeepsie, Joseph was able to seek greater opportunities for himself.
ADJUSTING IN AMERICA— In 2005, when he was only in the fourth grade, Joseph was told that he could finally come to the United States to be with his mother. After five years of waiting, Joseph was given a day’s notice of his journey from Itumba to the small town of Irvington in Westchester, NY. His family as well as some family friends brought him to the capital to get his necessary documents. He said his goodbyes to his friends, although not all of them due to the abrupt announcement of his travels. Then, the America Joseph had only seen in movies had finally become his reality, and after 13 years he has not turned around since.
“Coming to the U.S. was exciting,” reflected Joseph. “Seeing those tall buildings and going through the city, taking the train. I had never been in a train before and actually, coming to the U.S., I had not been in a plane before.” Joseph’s most substantial struggle upon his arrival to the United States was the language barrier he faced as an immigrant. Upon his arrival, he did not know any English, making even the most basic forms of communication difficult. But to Joseph, it helped him to foster a sense of patience.
“English was a way of growth for me,” said Joseph. “Learning the grammar, the vocab, everything in English was a growing process. When I was in elementary school or middle school I did not try to compete with native speakers, I just wanted to compete with myself, making sure I’m learning what I need to learn so I can be better in communicating with others.” From English as a Second Language, or ESL, classes, to seven weeks of horseback riding, boat racing, and hiking at Camp Treetops, to starting the fourth grade at a new school, Joseph began adapting to his new American lifestyle. He credits the friends he made at school to largely helping him with his transition, helping him figure out the terrain of not only his new school, but also his new town.
“We had play dates, watched movies, went swimming, I used to go ice skating a couple of times. I got to meet great friends who really helped me to get used to the U.S.” Sadly, his life at Irvington was short lived. Joseph, his mother, and his younger brother, had to move to Poughkeepsie, NY due to domestic violence issues. “I wasn’t happy, nobody was happy, it wasn’t what we all wanted,” said Joseph. “But it was just better to live in Poughkeepsie.”
Transitioning from Irvington to Poughkeepsie proved to be a challenge for young Joseph. “I was leaving friends that I had known since I came to the U.S., that I had known for more than six years,” he said. “Even though we didn’t know each other since birth…we grew up together. That was my second home, that was the first place I knew since I came to the U.S.”
NEW OPPORTUNITIES— In Poughkeepsie, Joseph kept himself busy with his studies at Poughkeepsie High School, track, soccer, and clubs such as Brother to Brother and Liberty Partnership Program. But in the negative circumstances he had his sights set on one positive: Marist College.
Joseph applied to Marist after visiting campus with the Liberty Partnership Program, which is affiliated with the college. He was later accepted into the college in addition to the Higher Education Opportunity Program, or HEOP. “When I was in high school and I got the letter saying I was accepted… I cannot really describe the way I felt,” said Joseph. “It was a dream come true. I never really thought that I would go to college because college is expensive. But now I had the chance to go to college, and [I was also] the first person in my family to go. I had so much joy when I found out I was going to college.”
Aside from the HEOP program, Joseph is heavily involved in ARISE, a Bible study group part of Campus Ministry and helps to coordinate the annual Rwandan genocide commemoration on campus. In 2016, Joseph was finally able to become an official American citizen. “I always wanted [to become a citizen] but I never thought it would happen,” commented Joseph. “Just even being in the U.S., I never really thought that would happen. But it felt great. I thank God for all the journey that I took in order to become a citizen. It was a relief, it’s a long process, but I was really glad I went through that process and have now become a citizen.”
Joseph aspires to become a special education teacher. He draws inspiration from his experiences with his fourth-grade teacher and his third ESL teacher that he met in middle school, but he chose to go into special education largely because of his brother. He said, “he has special needs and I wanted to learn how to help people with special needs. Being in this field, I am learning different skills that will hopefully help me later as a teacher and also so I can help my little brother and my future students.”