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Forging a new life

Fidele Mugisha

Fidele Mugisha (BSBA ’21) could have an entirely different story. As a young boy, he experienced the worst of humanity: the slaughter of his people, hopelessness, sadness and fear that can change a person’s heart.

Fidele MugishaWith family origins in the eastern region of Democratic Republic of Congo and born in Rwanda, Mugisha had only known life as a refugee. The ongoing civil war against his tribe, the Banyamulenge (Congolese Tutsi), in the South Kivu province meant his family was always on the run. When Mugisha was just 9, he and his parents and younger siblings lived near the Gatumba Refugee Camp near Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, with their people.

The Forces for National Liberation massacred more than 166 civilian Banyamulenge and wounded another 106 at the camp on Aug. 13, 2004. The trauma for Mugisha was profound but he dared to dream of a different life. Even as a young boy, he felt determined to get past the horrors.

“I lost so many of my friends and family,” he says. “After all the experiences that my tribe has gone through, my parents always emphasized the importance of education. When you keep fleeing from one country to another, you don’t have anything tangible to hold onto. The only thing that you have is knowledge and no one can take knowledge away from you.”

With that philosophy in mind, Mugisha made it his mission to stay focused and get the best grades possible.

“I took that to heart,” he says. “I studied hard beginning in the fifth grade.”

Overcoming great challenges

School was not easy. The family continued to move, mostly in Burundi, to avoid violence. He had only one school uniform for the entire year. Years went by with no resolution regarding the massacre.

In 2013, the United Nations studied the cases of surviving refugees and determined that Mugisha and his family could never return home. The U.N. began placing these refugees in Western countries willing to take them in, and Mugisha and his family headed for the U.S. Other relatives were sent to England, Canada and Australia.

“I am just so grateful for the U.S. government and what it has done for us,” he says.

Fidele MugishaIn 2015, Mugisha and his family arrived in Durham, North Carolina. They had arrived with nothing but the clothes on their back. During their first month, as the oldest of nine children, he went to work to help support his family.

At first, Mugisha vacuumed cars at a car wash. This was grueling because he is 6 feet 3 inches tall and had to bend over for the entire day. Next, he worked at a golf course, where he “became an expert at lawn mowing.”

But Mugisha was restless. He wanted more out of life. He turned back to the family mantra about education. In the spring of 2016, he enrolled at Durham Technical Community College. First, he took English classes because the language was still new to him.

In all his previous education, professors spoke fluently in a few languages and moved easily from one to another in a single lesson. Mugisha is fluent in French, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi and Kinyamulenge.

For the first time, however, he heard only English in a classroom. As he was placed in more rigorous coursework, he doubted his ability. He asked his counselor if he was in the right place, if he should be in an easier class.

The response? “I believe you can do it.”

Believe in yourself

So, Mugisha continued. He began studying other subjects as he mastered English. He tried to understand the text, translate it, and then study whatever topic was at hand.

“I felt like I was spending twice the time of an American student to get at the same place,” he says. “I needed to first understand the language and what I was reading before I could actually study.”

Nothing stopped him. As an extrovert, he realized making friends – and talking to them in English – was key to reaching fluency. So, that’s what he did.

He began to study business and finance because that was what piqued interest in Africa. From the start, Mugisha planned to transfer to earn a bachelor’s degree. He was doing well at the community college and had earned a 4.0 GPA.

That’s when people started to talk to Mugisha about the possibility of transferring to University of North Carolina via the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (C-STEP) for high-achieving community-college students. Once accepted, he had to maintain a GPA of at least 3.2 or risk getting kicked out of the program before he could even start.

“I had already decided that I’m going to UNC,” he says. “There was no way I was going to let my GPA go down.”

Fidele Mugisha

Photo by Jeyhoun Allebaugh/UNC-Chapel Hill.

In fact, he kept up his grades and graduated with a 3.8/4.0 GPA from Durham Tech in 2018 with an associate degree in arts with a focus in business. He moved to UNC for his next step in higher education, where he earned a Carolina Covenant scholarship, which covered his full financial needs through grants, scholarships and work-study for the typical American college experience.

A uniquely American experience

Mugisha enjoyed breaking bread and socializing with his two roommates. He was determined to get into UNC Kenan-Flagler, and when he successfully enrolled, the Rwandan and Congolese flags were added to other flags representing students’ nations that hang in front of the McColl Building.

He noticed other students already had somewhat established networks and most had a summer internship lined up. He felt behind.

“I thank God for the personality he gave me,” he says. “I’m a quick learner and I enjoy connecting with people.”

Mugisha began searching for an internship. He turned to the resources of the Undergraduate Business Program Career Services for support, and in the summer of 2019, he earned an internship as a private equity summer analyst at Morgan Creek Capital Management LLC in Chapel Hill. It was a great first step into the kind of work he always wanted to pursue.

Fidele MugishaThis was the gateway to a number of opportunities. He interned for Habitat for Humanity, which ended up providing a home for his parents and siblings. He learned he could get a full scholarship to study abroad so he applied and got accepted into an exchange program at the University of Manchester in the U.K. through UNC Kenan-Flagler. Although the COVID-19 pandemic cut it short, Mugisha experienced the generosity and kindness of the UNC community. People called to check on him, and when he returned to a house with everyone trying to find a quiet place to study, the community helped him find a private office at WeWork in Durham to complete his work.

Mugisha tapped into the Carolina network. He went on to intern at Wells Fargo as an investment banking summer analyst after completing his junior year, and all his experiences formed a clear picture: “UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School is a family. It’s a community,” he says. “It gave me things I never thought possible.”

During senior year, Mugisha accepted a full-time job as a financial analyst at Deutsche Bank in Jacksonville, Florida. After graduation, he got married with many friends and some UNC faculty and staff celebrating with him at his wedding.

Wanting to be closer to family again after finding out that they were expecting a baby girl, they moved back to North Carolina in 2022, and now he is an ISG investment pricing analyst with Lenovo in Morrisville.

Mugisha was one of 19 chosen among more than 70 applicants at Lenovo for a sponsored service trip to the Dominican Republic with Wine to Water in January 2023. Never forgetting his past, Mugisha performs community service by mentoring and tutoring young refugees. Faith – in God and God-given gifts – is what has taken Mugisha from that tragic day at the refugee camp to UNC Kenan-Flagler alumnus.

“I’ve learned honestly to forgive and love people,” he says. “When they do me wrong, I genuinely choose to love them because that’s what God asks us to do.”