Ornella Rwanziza, Valedictorian of Ishema Grade


Ornella Rwanziza was selected as the valedictorian of Ishema grade. As a four-time National Debate Champion and the Founder of Agahozo-Shalom’s chapter of Girl Up, a United Nations-affiliated club focused on women’s empowerment, she is truly a leader. A source of pride to her fellow graduates, and an inspiration to us all, Ornella made her mark during our graduation ceremony by delivering an incredible speech. For your enjoyment, a transcript of her speech is included below:

“Educating someone requires patience. We thank our dear educators, parents, guardians and families for being patient with us and for bearing our imperfections. Education is freedom, but the locks of that opportunity were tightened every day before we came to The Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. Our educators at Agahozo-Shalom removed these barriers and un-cuffed us.

You taught us how to be wise. You taught us how to pick ourselves up after failure and rise again. You taught us to be responsible citizens; you taught us how to be children in small families and one, large ASYV family. You taught us how to stand up and speak out against injustice.

You taught us not to be afraid of those who are different from us; you taught us that our differences don’t tear us apart, but they instead give us the opportunity to experience diversity which gives life to new ideas, innovation and beauty. You taught us that our greatness lies and will always be in each other’s strengths as long as we continue learning from each other.

We can’t thank you enough and we know you don’t expect us to pay you back, but we aspire to make you proud by giving back to the world through Tikkun Olam, a value we’re all taking home to heal those with broken hearts and make the change we want to see. 

We recognize the Founder of The Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Anne Heyman, and all the board members and donors, who believed and saw the best in us when we didn’t know how gifted we are. May our continued work of Tikkun Olam pay lasting tribute to Anne Heyman and may her memory always be a blessing.

I want to thank Jenna Merrin immensely for being here with us today; you came to represent your father and your brothers Jason and Jonathan. We thank you, and we love you. I also want to express our deepest gratitude to our Board Chair Laurie Franz. She was not able to be with us today, but we know she is with us at all times. We are happy to have with us another one of our board members, Mr. Bertrand Kayiranga. Tonton, thank you for being with us today; it means so much to us. 

When I came to Agahozo-Shalom, I was a shy girl, shy in my body, my mind and my actions. When I got here, ASYV showed me the miracles that come to life when you believe in yourself. 

I realized that girls did not fully understand their potential, and I knew what women who come together can do. I dreamed of the impact we could have on each other and our communities. So, my friends and I founded a Girl Up club to educate girls and help them build the self-confidence and self-advocacy that society refused us at our early ages. 

We’ve organized fundraisers for fellow disadvantaged girls; we’ve organized a national public speaking competition; we’ve led workshops and discussions so that girls can be proud of being who they are. Now, our next move is leading a nation-wide campaign to raise awareness about menstruation, which is largely overlooked. 

No matter how far we have come, we’ve all made it here today. This is a combination of persistence, support, commitment, hard work, sacrifice and studying late nights and early mornings. Yet, we still found time to give back to our community by building houses and beautifying our school: the charity painting! 

We also participated in and led all kinds of clubs and initiatives. Oh my friends, we rose to the challenge and excelled in what we did. We’ve won countless honors and awards; among us, we have black belt holders, two times national debate champions, award-winning traditional dancers who uphold our cherished Rwandan culture, (if I might call you) professional theater and film actors and actresses, computer geeks and physics geniuses, aspiring politicians and business owners. 

Looking in these graduates’ eyes, I see constellations. If you connect the dots you can trace the true shape of success, change, transformation, determination, hope and commitment. In their eyes I see the same lights that guided our heroes to liberate our nation; I see the courage that made Malala stand up for what she believed in. I see them, I see the future.

Graduates, we have come from the worst; we experienced what no other high school students would ever imagine happening to them. But we should never be pulled down by those struggles. Our stories are the ladders that make it easier for us to touch the stars. So climb and grab them, grab them.

Graduates, we were not born to be common, we were born to be comets. Light up the world with your luminous light. Graduates, with our deep commitment to our communities, we all reflect the purpose of the school founding, but more importantly we possess the very hopes and dreams of our nation.

For our younger brothers and sisters, what Ishema grade did was good but not enough. We want you to keep maximizing your potential and go the extra mile. We hope you have learned from us, and as a Rwandan proverb says, “Wigisha intore guhamiriza bwacya ikakurusha. [If you teach someone how to dance, the next day they’ll be better than you].” That’s what we expect from you.

Graduates, don’t be trapped by “the real world. Explore your potential and continue to let the love of discovery and learning develop you. Look around for opportunity wherever you are.

You deserve all the possible successes, but with those, let me repeat that we have an obligation to fulfill. Reach back to the most disadvantaged in your communities and always strive to do what’s right.Raise your voices to speak out for the unheard and silenced – that should be our mission.

Lift your voices until you have covered every hole in the next generation’s broken sky by our country’s dark history of 1994, so they know their celestial potential. We have lived in the black holes of our nation, absorbing everything without allowing our light to escape, but those days are done. We belong among stars and so do those to come after us.

Graduates, we are the pride of our nation Rwanda. We are the new change, and together we can inspire galaxies of generations to come. The sky is just the beginning.”

On behalf of everyone at Agahozo-Shalom, we hope you enjoyed Ornella’s stirring words as much as we did. If you would like to read about Ishema Grade’s graduation ceremony, please check the rest of our blog for more.