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‘My goal is to go home and make a change’

  • News Image
    Yvette Niyomugaba hopes to eventually return to her home country of Rwanda and open a recycling facility.
  • News Image
    Niyomugaba has worked with Therese Shelton, associate professor of mathematics, on a mathematical model of plastic recycling in Bangladesh.

Student from Rwanda is graduating from Southwestern with honors – and an idea for how to improve her country

Yvette Niyomugaba has come a long way since arriving at Southwestern in the fall of 2009.  Back then, she was still struggling to speak English after having just come to the United States from Rwanda as part of a special program designed to help build a new generation of leaders for that African country.

Four years later, she is graduating from Southwestern as a member of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor society and is applying to some of the best schools in the country to pursue graduate studies. She has presented research at state and national conferences and even won a national award for one of her presentations.

“I’m elated to see how well Yvette has done,” said Therese Shelton, an associate professor of mathematics who has worked closely with Niyomugaba.

Niyomugaba began doing research with Shelton in the summer of 2012 to develop a mathematical model of plastic recycling in Bangladesh.  She continued to expand the model throughout the academic year for an independent study project. 

Niyomugaba presented her research at MathFest, a national math conference that was held in Madison, Wisc., in August 2012, and again at the Joint Mathematics Meetings sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America and the American Mathematical Society in San Diego in January 2013. At the conference in San Diego, her presentation of a revised model, which was titled  “Recycling Toward a Better Earth through Math,” won one of 50 Outstanding Presentation Awards that were given to undergraduates out of a slate of more than 300 presenters.

Niyomugaba also presented her work at the Texas Undergraduate Mathematics Conference, which was held at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches in October 2012, and at the Texas Section of the Mathematics Association of America in April 2013, held at Texas Tech University. She and Shelton said they plan to submit the research to a journal for publication.

After graduating in May with a degree in math, Niyomugaba will spend the summer helping Shelton with a program that Southwestern offers for high school students called the Science Training and Education Program (STEPS). She hopes to eventually attend graduate school to study biostatistics, but is also interested in medicine and pharmaceuticals.

Niyomugaba said she wants to stay in the United States long enough to gain experience and knowledge that will help her give back to her country. “I need to be well equipped before I go back home,” she said.

Niyomugaba grew up in Kigali, the capital and largest city of Rwanda. She is the second youngest in a family of 11 children. She is one of two students who were selected to come to Southwestern as part of the Rwanda Presidential Scholars Program, which was designed in 2007 to help rebuild Rwanda. The other student who came to Southwestern, Jean-Pierre Murenzi, also is graduating in May with a degree in physics and has been accepted to Portland State University to pursue graduate studies in electrical engineering.

“When I came to Southwestern I didn’t know what to expect, but it has been a great experience,” Niyomugaba said. “I am very grateful for the opportunity to have attended Southwestern.”

In addition to her research, Niyomugaba has been involved in many organizations and activities on and off campus. She has been a Resident Assistant (RA) since her sophomore year, a mentor in Operation Achievement, a mathematics tutor and a French tutor, to name a few. She even tried her hand at playing lacrosse.

Because people in Rwanda are not aware and educated about the importance of recycling, Niyomugaba’s long-term goal is to collect funds and work with partners to open a recycling company in Rwanda.

“Working on this research about recycling opened my eyes and made me more conscious about recycling,” she said. “My goal is to go home and make a change.”

Niyomugaba said she is still waiting to hear whether her mother and any of her siblings will be able to make it to Texas to see her graduate.

“Her [my mother] seeing me walking the stage at graduation would be the best day of my life,” she said.