Agnes Mutoni’s family fled Rwanda during the country’s civil war, escaping a genocide carried out by the Rwandan military and police forces that would claim the lives of more than half a million people. Now an international cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Cadet 3rd Class Mutoni said she hopes to improve the Rwandan military’s image and encourage more young women to join.
Cadet 3rd Class Mutoni said she hadn’t originally planned to join the military at a young age. She planned to go to school in the U.S., then return home with a degree to join.
“I knew I wanted to come to the United States because of the education,” she said. “It’s pretty expensive, so I was hoping for a scholarship.”
Mutoni applied to several women’s schools and was in the process of applying for a visa when someone encouraged her to apply for entrance to one of the U.S. military service academies. She applied, but she said didn’t consider herself in the running because of the service academies’ physical requirements.
“I thought it was only for boys,” she said. “They’re the only ones who could actually do the pull-ups or the push-ups.”
Her perception changed when Army Maj. Robert Atienza, now a lieutenant colonel, called her from the Rwandan embassy to let her know she’d been selected.
“That was overwhelming,” she said. “I didn’t see it coming. Even my sisters were like, ‘Wow, really?’ Everyone was so shocked.”
She had three months to get into better shape to meet the Air Force Academy’s physical requirements. With time and perseverance, she passed.
Mutoni spent a few days in Colorado before in-processing. Her host, Capt. Blythe Andrews, told her the Academy experience would be a lot of fun but she’d have to work hard. She didn’t mention what lay in wait come in-processing day.
“I think (the omission) is really good. I love coming into something with a fresh mind,” Mutoni said. “If I knew that there’d be lots of yelling … I’d never been in such a situation before, and I hate to say this, but I probably would have started having second thoughts.”
Mutoni said she had an easy time making friends because American cadets were curious about her cultural background.
“Everyone wants to know, ‘How is it in Rwanda?’ ‘How is it not being American, not used to the culture?’ ‘How is it having a different culture? ‘How do you do things in your culture?'” she said. “Just the nametag being international brought friends that I think I wouldn’t have made if I was an American student, because everyone wants to talk to you.”
But Mutoni said she feels she has the better deal from the cultural exchange because of the diversity of culture within the U.S.
“I only have one thing to offer them, but then people from the South are different from people from the North,” she said. “My first two roommates (in freshman year) — one is from California, and one is from Missouri — even with them you see a totally different culture.
“That’s something that really struck me,” she continued. “I have the whole world around me.”
Mutoni said some aspects of Air Force culture, such as how the Air Force and the Academy treat sexual assault, were particularly eye-opening. She recalled the Academy’s Take Back the Night event in April.
“I’ve never seen a sexual assault awareness (event) anywhere in the world,” she said. “How many sexual assaults take place back home, and all we do is cover them up because we don’t want to bring embarrassment to the family, or we don’t want to bring embarrassment to the institution? But with the Air Force it’s different: If someone has been sexually abused, they … show that they’re actually embarrassed with what happened and they’re willing to change. I thought that was really striking.”
The Air Force Academy’s approach is also different in its effort to include men rather than exclude them, Mutoni said.
“Even when we talk about women’s rights, we involve men but in a negative way, like, ‘Men shouldn’t abuse our rights,’ not, ‘Come in, let’s celebrate the rights we have right now’ or ‘Come in, let’s fight against sexual assault,'” she explained. “When we fight men, it’s ‘We’re fighting against sexual assault,’ and the men come in as aggressors. … But here it’s different. Men come in to fight against sexual assault.”
Mutoni said she misses some of the freedoms that help her friends in civilian colleges mature but that the Air Force Academy experience helps young men and women develop professionally.
“You learn more and you develop more than someone who’s in civilian life at an early age,” she said. “That’s not to say my friends in civilian college are not developing, but I feel like I’m developing more — and it’s not just academically. I’m developing in planning, in discipline, in other areas where they don’t get chances to develop.”
After graduation, Mutoni said she’d like to go into aerospace medicine. She also wants to talk to young women in Rwanda and encourage them to apply to U.S. military service academies.
“When I went back home last December, my young sister’s friends approached me,” Mutoni said. “They said, ‘Hey, we really want to apply to that school you’re going to.'”
The young girl’s parents chose not to let her apply, however, because of their concerns about the history of Rwanda’s military. Mutoni said she wants to see that perception change.
“I’ll try to talk to some girls,” she said. “I’ll send out my number. You don’t even have to come to USAFA to join the military back home, but if you do come to USAFA, it’s a bonus, because you get a free education — and a good education. I want to encourage them because it’s a beautiful institution.
“I want to see my country develop, and I want to play a role in developing my country,” she said. “I feel like the military’s offering that opportunity, so I’m willing to take it.”
Source: US Air Force Academy