Guest Speaker: Be the kind of person that makes others feel welcome

“Set a goal of leaving the world a little better than you found it.”

That was a message author and guest speaker Sandra Uwiringiyimana recently shared with Hornell City School District students.

Uwiringiyimana, author of “How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child,” talked about her life and childhood during a Feb. 28 visit to the Junior-Senior High School. She challenged students to take responsibility for their actions and make small changes that can make a difference in their community.

Sandra Uwiringiyimana speaks to HHS students

As a child, Uwiringiymana’s life was similar to Hornell’s students: playing with friends, spending time with family and attending school. Yet, she grew up in the war torn country of the Congo. During a time of danger, her family escaped to a refugee camp where an unexpected attack ended with the death of her sister and other family members.

With no home or money, Uwiringiymana’s remaining family members struggled to stay alive. Eventually, through a United Nations refugee program, they moved to America and settled in Rochester, New York.

As a teenager, Uwiringiymana began advocacy work by telling her story with the goal of sparking change. She has spoken in front of audiences that included presidents and foreign dignitaries, but she said her favorite place to speak is at schools because she feels that you are never too young to start making a difference.

members of NHS & NJHS meet with Sandra Uwiringiyimana

Students from Hornell’s National Honor Society as well as National Junior Honor Society were given the opportunity to have lunch with Uwiringiymana. They asked questions about her work and ways they can help. She challenged them to start local and find organizations that need help.

“Across the world, young people are standing up and advocating for their communities,” Uwiringiymana told the students. “Stop saying someone else will do it, and take small actions where you are now. Working together, you can get further than working alone.”

Giving students the opportunity to read stories and listen to speakers like Uwiringiymana’s helps to expand their worldview.

“As a district, we want to provide opportunities for our students to broaden their perspectives on the world we live in,” High School Principal Morgan Allison said. “We want to enrich the educational opportunities within the school community and challenge students to think about ways they can make a difference in the world.”

 Human Rights elective class with author Sandra Uwiringiyimana

Leading up to Uwiringiymana’s visit, students read excerpts of her memoir in English and history classes. Students enrolled in the Human Rights elective read the memoir as well as learned about the Congo and civil unrest that continues to impact its people. Uwiringiymana was able to sit with that class for a roundtable discussion.

“Sandra made me realize that spreading love elsewhere starts with you and people around you,” said senior Sophie Wilkins. “I feel that I have the power to spark change anywhere.”

Throughout the day, Uwiringiymana impressed on the students the importance of education This message continued at the district faculty meeting. She took the time to thank teachers for all they do to advocate for their students. Faculty was then given a chance to ask questions about her experiences with education both in the Congo and after coming to America.

“Without teachers, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she said. “Teachers are left to fill the gaps that parents can’t fill.”

Uwiringiymana challenged everyone to think of opportunities they have to make a difference both in the future and now. She reminded students at the end of each presentation: “You are all valuable and important, and the world really really needs each of you.”