Burundians in the Diaspora: Meet Dr Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA, Professor at Northeastern Illinois University of Chicago

Burundians in the Diaspora: Meet Dr Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA, Professor at Northeastern Illinois University of Chicago


Born in Rumeza, Bururi province in 1961, Doctor Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA studied English Language and Literature at the University of Burundi. She taught at “École Indépendante de Bujumbura” (1987-1991) and at the University of Burundi (1990-1991) in the “Institut Pédagogique” (now the Institute for the Applied Pedagogy) before getting a Fulbright Scholarship at Southern Illinois University of Chicago in 1991. Since 1999 till now, she is lecturing at Northeastern Illinois University of Chicago. DR NTIHIRAGEZA shares her story through the interview below.


Akeza.net: Who is Dr Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA? What’s her story?

Dr Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA: I was born in Rumeza, Bururi province in Burundi, in 1961. I am the eldest in a family of 10 children.  I attended “École Primaire de Rumeza” for elementary school and “École Normale de Rutovu” for High School. I graduated in 1981.  From there, I taught English, Physical Education and Maths at “École Technique de Mutumba” for two years before embarking on a journey to college at the University of Burundi in fall 1983.  I studied English Language and Literature which lead to one job, teaching English at “École Indépendante de Bujumbura”  (1987-1991) and another, teaching English and training teachers at the “Institut Pédagogique” (now Institute for the Applied Pedagogy) of the University of Burundi (1990-1991), before coming to the US on Southern Illinois University’s Fulbright Scholarship in 1991.


Akeza.net: How did you fall for the English language ?

Dr Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA: Back then we didn’t start learning English until 9th grade.  However, when I heard “Gimme that old time religion” song in a Religion class, I absolutely fell in love with the language.  I wanted it to become the tool of my life. I had no idea how but I really wanted to study English from that moment on.


Akeza.net: How and when were you hired as a lecturer at Northeastern Illinois University of Chicago?

Dr Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA: I left Burundi for graduate school in Applied Linguistics with focus on English teacher training at Southern Illinois University. In 1999, at the time I was finishing my dissertation in Theoretical Linguistics at the University of Chicago, I got hired as an instructor to train teachers of English as a Second Language at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.  Basically, it was the combination of my knowledge and skills acquired at Southern Illinois and the University of Chicago that led to my position at Northeastern Illinois University.


Akeza.net: When you started lecturing at Northeastern Illinois University, how did you feel?

Dr Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA: I felt truly blessed. Growing up in Rumeza and teaching in a university in the US is a privilege that I don’t take for granted.  I am very grateful to my family and the numerous mentors who supported me all the way.


Akeza.net: What was your experience as a Burundian woman who, everyday, strives to work hard at a high level?

Dr Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA: The sad reality is that we, as women, have to work many times more than men for our work to be visible and appreciated.  However, that should not discourage us. It is important we keep working hard for social change so that future generations do and experience things differently.


Akeza.net: What would you advise and urge young Burundian women and girls whose dreams are to be role models in our society?

Dr Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA: Faith, love, determination, hard work, and persistence (one step at a time).  Don’t give up, no matter how hard life may be. Find friends and mentors who have a similar belief system.  Don’t try to do it alone.  Most importantly, forgive yourself if you try something and it doesn’t work.


Akeza.net: What could the younger Burundian generation eager to be successful in life learn from your journey?

Dr Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA: Staying in school is what helped me.  It’s not the only route to achieving one’s life goals but school affords you the kind of knowledge and skills, you will need in today’s global world.


Akeza.net: Would you say it was difficult to achieve your goals or were you just lucky?

 Dr Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA: It was hard but, for the most part, I was in the right place at the right time.  My father (who I was very close to), before his death, tremendously supported my education though, at that time, girls were not highly encouraged to go to school.  Then my mother picked up from there and was a great champion. My siblings were impeccable supporters too.  When I got married (in 1987), my husband agreed to stay in Burundi with two very young children so that I could attend graduate school in the US.  Then Fulbright Scholarship was available at the time I could apply.  Additionally, it was easy to apply for doctoral studies since I was already in the US.  Having both theoretical and applied Linguistics in my training made it possible to get the job I have.  I have also benefited from incredible friends mentors throughout my life.


Akeza.net: Most Burundians would want to be where you are (America). Do you ever dream/think about Burundi? What do you miss here?

Dr Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA: Home is always home. There is nothing like home.  Besides, Burundi is very special not only in terms of its cultural heritage but most importantly, its people.  I miss it very much.


Akeza.net: What is it like for a Burundian lady who grew up in Burundi to raise kids in America?

Dr Jeanine NTIHIRAGEZA: Raising children is always a challenge.  Raising them in a new land is even more challenging. Looking back, it was a constant joggle between two worlds, trying to instill positive elements from both so that our children grow up appreciating both countries. The biggest challenge was language.  It was hard for our children to keep speaking Kirundi without anybody else speaking it around them, outside the home.  All in all, I believe it was much easier for my husband and I to raise our children in the US because we are both educated and share the same culture.


Interview by Melchisédeck BOSHIRWA

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *