Janet Irankunda is a powerful example of how a college experience can transform a life. Born in Tanzania, her family was fractured during the Rwandan genocide. She and her mom became refugees in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, while her dad stayed behind.
“Being a refugee is tough,” she says. Her mom, who arrived in the U.S. speaking no English and without knowing anyone in her new country, worked long hours to barely scrape by on rent and food. “It’s very isolating,” Irankunda says. “My goal throughout my education and life in general is to make sure no one feels that same level of isolation or disparity, and the only way for me to do that is through my education.”
Irankunda struggled with self-esteem in high school: “Every day I went to school worrying if people would smell the poor on me. . . . I hated my clothes, my body, my hair, even my voice. And this is the way I came to Luther—scared of my circumstances and resigned to living a life without friends because of what I deemed as my social status.”
Even today, Irankunda wouldn’t call herself confident, but says she’s “been empowered” during her time at Luther. A glance at her resume would certainly suggest as much: Student Senate president and two-time class representative; student body representative on both the Strategic Planning Committee and the Presidential Search Committee; student director of Gospel Choir; vice president of Cathedral Choir; president of Aurora; and winner of the Krahn Family Student Life Service Award, the Kuh Family “Positively Luther” Award, the Steven Mark Anderson Scholarship, the Timothy and Sandra Peter Leadership Award, and the Jenson Medal.
About representing the student body in so many ways, Irankunda says, “I’ve been empowered to push and hear and listen and problem-solve, so I’m prepared as well as I can be. But when I am the only student in the room, I’m ‘the expert’ in that area, and I have to do my peers well in that sense. It’s a pressure for sure. But it’s a pressure I’m excited about, because I’m impacting Luther for years to come, and it goes with my life goal of making sure I’m able to help people even after I’m gone.”
Irankunda’s also been a support for other students through her work as a resident assistant and assistant hall director. Working with the Residence Life staff has had a profound impact on her, helping to define some of her career goals. “I want to continue in student affairs and work with students to create community the way we do as RAs, but even more broadly,” she says. “And a huge part of that has been my experience here in Res Life. Seeing the work they’re doing makes me so confident in this place’s ability to sustain a community that is growing and becoming more diverse.”
This fall, Irankunda began a position at Wartburg College as an area coordinator in a first-year residence hall, but she knows she’ll bring some Luther love with her. “I thank God every day for bringing me this Luther community,” she says, “and I am so excited to take this legacy out into the world, wherever I go.”