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Genocide survivor tells St. John’s graduates to be optimists

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St. John’s University’s Great Lawn was a sea of red Sunday when more than 3,200 students celebrated their graduation and left their alma mater with encouragement from Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza to hold onto hope in a world that can easily present daunting barriers to success.

“In life there will be challenges,” said Ilibagiza, who delivered the commencement address and received the school’s International Medal. “Don’t let go because something is hard.”

The graduates, who donned red gowns and black caps for Sunday’s ceremony, are entering a grim economy that can be unfriendly to individuals seeking jobs, Ilibagiza said. Still, she urged the individuals to grasp onto optimism as they wade through their lives.

“There was a time when I was hiding during the genocide that I could see no way out,” said Ilibagiza, who hid for 91 days in her parents’ friend’s bathroom during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. “But I got out. In this economy, you might think you see no way out, but as long as you are breathing, hold on. If you have a dream, do what you have to do to achieve it.”

Many graduates and their family members wiped away tears as Ilibagiza spoke of her suffering during the genocide in her home country. Ilibagiza was 24, around the same age as many of those graduating, when the genocide began. About 1 million Tutsis and Hutu moderates were killed during the genocide, including Ilibagiza’s parents, two brothers, friends and neighbors.

“The first night that I came out of the bathroom after hiding in it for three months, I was 65 pounds,” she told the crowd. “I was 115 pounds when I went in.”

“My family had been killed, but somehow there was this feeling that I was being told to keep moving ahead, keep living,” said Ilibagiza, who credits her faith with helping her to remain sane while cooped up in the two−meter by one−meter bathroom.

Ilibagiza now lives in Manhattan, works at the United Nations and has published three books, including the New York Times bestseller “Left to Tell.”

Thomas Wasilowski, a St. John’s business school graduate, also called on his fellow students to take the economy in stride.

“The current job market is tough, but St. John’s has given us the dexterity to find a job and excel in it,” said Wasilowski, who gave the student address.

Corona resident Jessica Lazo, 22, said Sunday was a “historic” day for the graduate and her family. Lazo, who received a bachelor’s in management with a minor in philosophy of law, is the first member of her family to graduate from college in the United States.

“I was able to go to college because my mom supported me,” Lazo said while standing next to her beaming mother, Rosa Arcentales.

Lazo was recently accepted into the St. John’s law school.

“I want to become a public interest attorney,” said Lazo, who hopes to work with domestic violence victims.

Joseph Sciame, vice president of community relations for St. John’s, said this year’s graduates are going to “contribute so much to the city, state, country and world.”

“I think today we exude the pride and success of our students,” Sciame said.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e−mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 174.

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