For a Westbrook High School graduating senior, learning English was the biggest challenge.

When Julie Mudasumbwa arrived in Westbrook from her native country of Burundi in the fall of 2013, she only knew rudimentary English.

Now, on the verge of graduating along with 129 of her classmates this weekend, she speaks fluently, and was accepted by four Maine colleges.

Regina Clement, the chairwoman of the Westbrook English Language Learner department, said this week that Mudasumbwa is an “incredible young lady.”

Clement wrote a letter of recommendation for Mudasumbwa for her college applications. In the letter, Clement describes Mudasumbwa’s quick progress in learning English.

“Within her first year, she made such incredible gains in her English proficiency that she was switched into a higher ELD English class,” she said. “Being a newly arrived student and participating in mostly college preparatory classes is extremely rare; however, Julie’s work ethic and prior schooling have allowed her to be very successful academically.”

Following marching band practice Tuesday, Mudasumbwa said she was excited to graduate this weekend at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.

Mudasumbwa came to the U.S. with her brother and mother, but her mother returned to Burundi to look after her other siblings. She and her brother, Shammah, who is sophomore at Westbrook, have been living with their aunt and uncle.

Mudasumbwa said she saw an opportunity to get a better education in America, and said college degrees from the U.S. can open doors.

There were obvious challenges for her, however, from learning how to get around a new school to making friends. Most of all, it was learning English.

She said that when she first arrived, on a scale from 1-10 in English, she would give herself a 2.

“I knew how to greet and how to say bye,” she said laughing.

To accelerate her learning, she said, she watched a lot of movies, read books and tried to talk to everyone she could.

“When I came here, no one spoke my language, so I had to learn,” she said.

However, she said other students from Burundi arrived this year, who also spoke her native language of Kirundi. Mudasumbwa also speaks French fluently, and was a member of the school’s French Club.

Mudasumbwa said she was most concerned with her English as a barrier to learning, but was never lost with the material. When she arrived, she was placed in lower-level classes, but quickly moved up at her request.

“I felt I was better, and the only problem was the English part,” she said.

The weather also initially presented a challenge, she said, admitting that she cried while walking home from school during her first cold and snowy experience with Maine winter.

Brian Davis, who taught Mudasumbwa in his Maine Wild Outdoors class, where students do outdoor recreational activities such as building rope bridges and hiking, said Mudasumbwa isn’t afraid to leave her comfort zone.

“These activities were not the kinds of experiences Julie was used to when she began the class, but she threw herself into everything with determination and joy and a true sense of adventure,” he said, adding that she once fell off a rope bridge and nearly tipped a kayak on the Presumpscot River. “Julie is intelligent, very determined, and the friendliest student you could ever want to meet.”

Mudasumbwa said that prior to her first college interview, she was extremely nervous, but was encouraged by Davis to not worry and be herself.

“That helped me a lot,” she said.

Mudasumbwa will attend the University of Maine this fall to study business.

Her home country of Burundi, which is bordered by the Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania, is under political unrest, as the sitting president recently announced he would run for a third term, despite the country’s laws. A coup was attempted in May, but failed, and protests followed, which caused people to flee the country.

When asked if she worried about her family back home, Mudasumbwa said, “Of course, all the time.”

Mudasumbwa said that after a few months in the school, her advisers said her English needed to be better in order to move into college prep-level classes. She said her reaction was, “No way, I’m just going to try it.”

She said she worked hard, stayed after school, and was encouraged by her teachers. She also made a lot of friends.

“I talked to everyone, because I wanted to improve my English,” she said.

Westbrook High School senior Julie Mudasumbwa stands in front of a wall showing college pennants at the school Tuesday. Moving to Westbrook from Africa in 2013, Mudasumbwa learned English quickly, and will graduate as a member of the class of 2015 on Saturday.Staff photo by Andrew Rice

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