The phrase “You can’t go home again” is more than a trite, throwaway expression to some people. For Atchima Mahamat-Zene in particular, it serves as a painful reality check given her exposure to unimaginable conditions growing up.
It’s her resilience in spite of them, however, that has helped her earn the 2013 Melvin L. Curtis Award for Academic Excellence—Ivy Tech Community College Northeast’s highest honor for a graduating student based on outstanding academic achievement, community-service participation, and personal qualities.
Mahamat-Zene is a native of Chad—a landlocked republic in north central Africa that possesses some of the most unenviable high rankings among nations. According to United Nations’ data, Chad is one of the poorest and most politically corrupt states in the world. Most inhabitants live in mud–brick dwellings and exist as subsistence herders and farmers.
Young girls often dream about better futures in Chad, Mahamat-Zene says, but they rarely achieve them. Many social, cultural, and religious customs deny those ambitions for women and girls, given barriers on access to educational opportunities, incidents involving domestic violence, and the practice of female genital mutilation, which are all commonplace despite laws prohibiting these acts.
“Before becoming teenagers, 13 of my friends and I made a pledge to go to college. By age 17, only one of us was not married. Now, only two of us are going to college,” Mahamat-Zene says. “I was the crazy one (in the group) for having those big dreams and even thinking of accomplishing them. I always strive to be an educated and successful woman, and for that reason, I took a big risk one day, and I decided to leave my home country for the United States.”
Her motivation for doing so as a non-English speaking asylum-seeker was to reclaim her life after escaping a kidnapping and hostage scenario. She had been taken to her soon-to-be-husband’s remote location for an arranged marriage she did not want.
Following a respite period of several months in the New York City area, she made her way to a host family in North Manchester, Ind., where, upon the birth of her daughter, Mariam, she enrolled at Manchester High School.
Upon graduation in 2012, she applied to, and was accepted in, Ivy Tech Northeast’s Associate Accelerated Program (ASAP)—a one-year, associate-degree option financed by a three-year grant from the Lumina Foundation.
The single mother with great financial needs had no relatives to assist her. She faced numerous challenges while persisting at Ivy Tech Northeast, from changing living arrangements unexpectedly and finding suitable child care assistance to balancing study time and coordinating daily, one-hour commutes to and from Fort Wayne.
Nevertheless, she persevered and found the solutions necessary to complete an associate degree in business administration in 12 months, earning magna cum laude honors with a 3.92 GPA and participating in ASAP-sponsored volunteer work with school children along the way.
“I am so very proud of Atchima,” says Cindy Chenoweth, ASAP program coordinator. “She truly values her education and sets goals for herself along with a plan on how to achieve them. Atchima does not let any obstacle deter her from achieving success.”
Mahamat-Zene will be attending Manchester University this fall with a prestigious President’s Scholarship and advanced standing in the university’s Fast Forward accelerated-degree program. Mahamat-Zene says her short-term goal is to complete a bachelor’s degree in business administration and enter the human resources field. Her long-term goal is to attend law school and become an immigration attorney.
“Many times, in Chad, when I felt let down by school, my aunt told me, ‘Knowledge is the only thing you will have left when you lose everything,’” Mahamat-Zene recalls.
Expanding that knowledge base will continue to be her focus, as she realizes the dreams she once believed were unobtainable.