New School, New Challenge: Zimbabwean Student’s Journey Continues at Middlebury 

At her home in  Lyme, N.H. Carola Lea hands Innocent Mpoki some curry for a dinner he was making on Aug. 21, 2014. Mpoki stayed with Lea this summer while he worked at Loch Lyme Lodge to make money for college.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

At her home in Lyme, N.H. Carola Lea hands Innocent Mpoki some curry for a dinner he was making on Aug. 21, 2014. Mpoki stayed with Lea this summer while he worked at Loch Lyme Lodge to make money for college. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

Innocent Mpoki begins classes today at Middlebury College, one of 660 students in the class of 2018, of which 73 are international students; Mpoki also falls into the 14 percent of students who are the first in their family to attend college. But the statistics don’t really tell the story of Mpoki’s odyssey, the first person in his remote rural village of Mupagamuri, Zimbabwe to go to the U.S.

Awarded an associate’s degree from Community College of Vermont in June, Mpoki was accepted to Middlebury in May as a transfer, with an almost-full scholarship: Out of a $62,000 annual tuition and room and board, he is responsible for $5,000 each year. It took a while for his accomplishment to sink in.

“I didn’t understand what it means to be accepted at Middlebury,” Mpoki, now 23, said.

Located in rural Masvingo Province, south of the capital Harare, Mupagamuri is one of 114 villages served by the Zienzele Foundation, founded by Prisca Nemapare and Nancy Clark in 2000 in response to the rampant AIDS crisis in Southern Africa which orphaned thousands of children. The foundation, based in Zimbabwe and Hanover, brings health care to the people of Masvingo Province. It also encourages children to pursue their education and women to set up businesses to sustain themselves and their families.

Nemapare, who is from Zimbabwe, returned home after retiring from Ohio University where she was a professor of nutrition; Clark, who lives in Topsham, is a care manager at both Gifford Medical Center in Randolph and the South Royalton Health Center.

The two women spotted Mpoki’s intellectual drive and tenacity early on, when he was still a child walking miles to and from school and doing his school work by the light of an improvised lamp because there is no electricity in the village. As he matured and excelled in his studies, they asked him whether he would consider coming to the U.S. to get a college degree.

His answer was yes, but it was complicated by several factors: he would have to leave behind his younger sister and his mother; the financial obligation of bringing him here would be substantial; and the culture shock would be considerable.

After months of bureaucratic maneuvering and volunteer efforts he arrived in the U.S. two years ago. He lived with the host family of Marjorie Rose and Doug Irwin, who both teach at Dartmouth College, and their two daughters, in Hanover, before moving in with Clark and her husband Jim in Topsham. After that he moved into the Norwich home of another Zienzele board member.

The adjustment from rural Mupagamuri, which also lacks running water and sufficient food, to the affluence of the U.S. was enormous. The climate, the language gap, the people, the ample supply of food, the kind of food, the assumptions about where he’d come from and what kind of person he was as a result: all of these combined to make his first year here challenging.

“It never ceases to amaze me how difficult it has been for him,” Clark said. But every step he takes forward is “one more leap of faith.” He has become more comfortable and confident over the past two years, she said, as his English language skills have improved. (The Valley News published an account of Mpoki’s adjustment to life in the Upper Valley on June 9, 2013.)

Mpoki took classes at Lebanon College and then, last year at the Wilder and Montpelier campuses of the Community College of Vermont. He lived part of the week in Randolph with one of his CCV teachers and part of the week in Norwich with a couple active in the Zienzele Foundation, while he commuted back and forth.

“It was exhausting to keep track of everything,” Mpoki said in an interview last month in Hanover, where he was house-sitting. “This past winter was brutal but it was so busy it went in a heartbeat.”

Mpoki had applied to six colleges this winter, writing the applications to all in just three days. There had never been much question that he would try for a four-year college after getting the associate’s degree.

“I thought I needed more, I needed a B.A.,” he said.

“As long as he was here and had the opportunity it made more sense to try to maximize the opportunity. We moved forward, not really knowing what we were getting into,” Clark said.

Middlebury was not on the original short-list but an adviser at St. Michael’s College in Burlington, where Mpoki applied, encouraged him to apply to Middlebury after hearing the extent of Mpoki’s financial need.

“When I went home I started to look at Middlebury on line. The admissions process was intimidating but I convinced myself I could do it,” Mpoki said.

Lee Walker, who taught Mpoki in an American history class at Lebanon College, recalls him as “one of the brightest students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach. He’s bringing in a new vision of the world. He has immense curiosity, and a desire to know everything about everything.”

When he first started his studies here, Mpoki was interested in business. Now he has become fascinated by biology, calling it his “passion,” and is intrigued by the possibility of a medical education. This summer he’s worked at Loch Lyme Lodge to earn money to help defray the cost of his portion of the Middlebury tuition.

“I think he’s always felt a little bit of an outsider,” said Carola Lea, a Lyme resident who has given Mpoki summer housing, and who is also on the board of the Zienzele Foundation. “For him to be an insider, to be part of Middlebury, is going to be a perfect opportunity.”

“Both the education and the network of alumni that Middlebury will give him will help him throughout the rest of his life,” wrote Marjorie Irwin in an email.

One day, Mpoki said, he thinks he will return to Zimbabwe. “I think a lot of people are counting on me, my family, my community. But the question of when is not clear.”

That so many at home need help is part of his motivation to educate himself in the U.S., he said. His mother and sister don’t yet know that he is going to Middlebury: there are no landlines in Mupagumari and his mother’s cellphone is not working currently. When Nancy Clark goes to Zimbabwe this fall she will bring letters from Innocent to his mother and sister, telling them about this next step in his life.

What will they think of his decision? Mpoki ponders and speaks carefully. “I think they will understand that I have a chance and I have to take it. I think they will be happy.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.