Chemical engineer Emmanuel Nsengiyumva passes on the gifts of mentorship

By Nicole Capozziello

Published October 15, 2020

As a PRODiG Fellow at SUNY Brockport, Emmanuel M. Nsengiyumva is getting to do what he loves–mentor the diverse range of students in STEM–while being nurtured on his own career path. 

“Without the support from the everyone in the chemical engineering department, I do not think I would have graduated and continued to grow in my education. The motivation from professors and others helped me to build confidence and continue to pursue my dream.”
Emmanuel M. Nsengiyumva, PRODiG Fellow and PhD student
Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Emmanuel Nsengiyumva

Nsengiyumva, a PhD student in the University at Buffalo Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, is one of 60 scholars selected to take part in the program, which strives to increase the representation of historically underrepresented faculty throughout the SUNY system. The program provides access to formal resources like workshops and trainings and experienced mentors to guide Fellows in balancing teaching, research, and service. Best of all for Nsengiyumva, he gets to support students on their paths, while drawing strength from his own experiences.

“The journey was not easy as someone who spent 15 years in a refugee camp,” says Nsengiyumva, who came to the United States from a Congolese refugee camp in Rwanda in 2010. “But this experience taught me how to persist. Any time I feel like giving up, I remind myself of the many times I went to bed having drank only porridge. I think about how I survived many civil wars (like the Mudende refugee camp massacre in December, 1997) and saw some of my friends and their families dying of hunger. After facing and overcoming these challenges, I know that there is nothing that can prevent me from achieving my goals.”

“I believe that my struggles as a student and in STEM can be a resource. As a first-generation college student, immigrant and refugee, there are many ways that I can relate to my students, and support them in their pursuits,” he says.

The SUNY PRODiG (Promoting Recruitment, Opportunity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Growth) Fellowship Initiative was launched in the academic year 2019-2020 to address the need for diversity among SUNY faculty.

While BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and women are underrepresented in SUNY faculty ranks in general, there is a pronounced gap in diversity between instructors and their students. A 2018 study by SUNY showed that while 28.5% of SUNY students are BIPOC, only 8.6% of SUNY faculty members are. PRODiG strengthens the belief that having diverse faculty is critical to supporting students from varied backgrounds, building effective teams, and preparing all students to live and work in a diverse and global society, ultimately benefiting the SUNY system and all members of its community.

“I know Emmanuel to be a kind giving person,” says Letitia Thomas, assistant dean for diversity of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Even when you talk to him about his research and other science-related topics, you can tell that he is a man rooted in faith and family. I’m so proud of, and happy for, all of his successes.”

Beyond teaching, he also aspires to work with diverse programs to recruit, promote, and retain underrepresented students in STEM fields. Nsengiyumva looks forward to continuing to serve all of his students, and particularly being a role model for those in the minority. 

He found his first mentor shortly after coming to the United States when he was 21, when a neighbor asked him to help a friend move some things around his house. The friend happened to be retired UB engineering professor Alexander Scott Gilmour, who was invaluable to Nsengiyumva throughout his education. 

"He always talked to me about college and what I wanted to do. I was initially interested in biomedical sciences, but he convinced me to study chemical engineering instead," Nsengiyumva. "When I was having problems or I was struggling, he was always there to support and explain things to me so I could continue to grow."

After two years at Erie Community College, Nsengiyumva started at UB in 2013. Immediately, he felt supported. “It is hard to succeed if you do not have people who believe in you and give you an opportunity to prosper,” he says. “And the UB community always believed in me.” 

Since then, Nsengiyumva’s path has continued to be paved with the support of many people, who’ve given him the confidence, inspiration, and connections to make his successes possible –and for which he is endlessly grateful. Nsengiyumva can cite numerous crucial moments when others went out of their way to help him during his education. Among them, chemical engineering professors Michael Lockett made calls to get him academic support when he was struggling and Johannes Nitsche stayed after class to explain plant design materials to him. 

“Without the support from the everyone in the chemical engineering department, I do not think I would have graduated and continued to grow in my education,” he says. “The motivation from professors and others helped me to build confidence and continue to pursue my dream.”

He is also grateful for UB’s STEM program, where Thomas connected him to the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program and the Western New York Prosperity Fellowship, in which he was encouraged by the mentorship of Hadar Borden. The latter experience taught him about the issues WNY is facing and connected him with progressive-thinking, community-minded leaders, including fellow immigrants, collaborating across sectors to make change. 

As a graduate student, Nsengiyumva joined the lab of UB Distinguished Professor Paschalis Alexandridis and became interested in research on using water-soluble polymers to extract unconventional oil and gas. Today, he continues this work, which enables the use of high salinity water for this extraction and reduces the use of freshwater, ultimately benefitting the environment and conserving energy resources. 

“Emmanuel has a real thirst for knowledge, is not shy about asking questions and seeking help, and is great at cultivating relationships with a diverse group of mentors, peers and junior students. He sets an excellent example for all our students of how someone can overcome adversity and thrive by being dedicated in pursuing his or her dream,” says Alexandridis. “I am extremely proud of Emmanuel being awarded a PRODiG Fellowship, and being given the opportunity to teach and interact with undergraduate students and faculty at SUNY Brockport.”

Nsengiyumva also served as a teaching assistant in Alexandridis’ CE212: Fundamental Principles of Chemical Engineering class. Under his tutelage, he learned how to be professional in the classroom, and observed how to listen to and motivate students. He was buoyed not just by Alexandridis’ knowledge but his belief in him. Nsengiyumva’s dedication and skill as an educator was recognized with a departmental Excellence in Teaching Award in 2018.

“Teaching is about giving back to the community,” he says. “I want to serve as a model to inspire and influence others to excel in their education.”

Throughout his educational pursuits he has been bolstered by the support of his family: his parents, his in-laws and his wife, an immigrant who came to the United States herself when she was seven.

“My wife understands that studying English is tough and she’s made sacrifices to help me. We can relate to each other and thus motivate each other,” Nsengiyumva says. “This is how I plan to make a difference with my students – by finding common ground and then building on those strengths to help them succeed no matter the challenges they face.”

During his year-long fellowship at SUNY Brockport, Nsengiyumva will be shadowing faculty in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and, in the spring, he’ll teach a course in polymer science that he developed himself, inspired by a class he took at UB.

Looking back at his educational career, Nsengiyumva says, “Of course, being underrepresented in the classroom can be discouraging. But, I was able to break the barriers with good support from the CBE community. Now, I must use the training that I obtained from UB to give back.”