Community College Student Graça Muzela Pursues a Career in Electrical Engineering

Graca Muzela has just been named student of the year at Washington County Community College. And yet, Graca almost couldn’t go to college in the first place. On his first application in 2020, he was rejected due to his status as an asylum seeker.

Graca Muzela was named student of the year at Washington County Community College. Photo submitted

Requirements for non-citizens vary from state to state. In Maine, Graca was able to have her application accepted at the WCCC after submitting proof of her asylum claim and eligibility for legal residency, and scheduling a meeting between admissions officers and her social worker about of immigrants. That makes him lucky compared to asylum seekers in other states like Georgia, where aspiring students can only apply to college 12 to 24 months after their asylum claim is approved – a process that can take many years.

Graca’s family was lucky to have their asylum approved in just two years. “I just thank God that my family was able to get asylum in a short time,” he told me. “It was worrying and stressful not being sure of our future in the United States”

The family had good reason to be concerned. His father was a political activist in their native Angola, which put him at odds with some officials. If they had stayed, their lives would have been in danger.

Graca and his parents came to the United States in 2019 when he was 17. He didn’t speak English, but he was determined to learn – and fast. As a junior at Lewiston High School and later at Edward Little High School in Auburn, he had access to ESL classes. But he also took the initiative to enroll in afternoon ESL classes at the Lewiston Adult Education Center. By doubling his lessons, he was able to communicate with his teachers and classmates within months.

Language isn’t the only area where Graça’s ambition has served him well. He was automatically enrolled in remedial math classes, a situation far too common for students with language barriers. He asked for an official assessment – ​​and tested three grade levels above where they had it. His teachers were so impressed that they encouraged him to enroll in free STEM classes at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center. He enrolled in the electrical program and earned professional certifications in construction, occupational safety and health administration, and a few other fields. His experience in the electrical program convinced him to pursue a career as an electrical engineer.

When Graca started his first year in WCCC’s residential and commercial electrical program, he felt like an underdog. Many of his classmates already had hands-on experience. But rather than being intimidated, Graca says “seeing them work hard pushed me to work so hard too.”

In particular, he admires his classmate, Nathan, who has become something of an unofficial mentor. In addition to working with Graca on projects inside and outside the classroom, he also helps Graca with any questions or issues he encounters. “He’s like my second teacher,” Graca tells me.

It didn’t take long for Graca to achieve the academic success he was looking for. And when the faculty saw how hard he worked, they offered Graca a residential counselor position. “I’m a pretty open guy,” he admits, adding that he didn’t get there without a little help from those who believed in him. As an RA, he could pay for this support.

As for the future, Graca plans to complete another year at the WCCC. Eventually, he hopes to earn his journeyman electrician’s license and transfer to the University of Maine’s electrical engineering program. He finds the field intellectually stimulating. “I like things that make my head work,” he explains. And after so many years of living in uncertainty, Graca looks forward to the stability that a STEM career offers. “As our society continues to industrialize, electricians will always have work,” he says.

Throughout it all, Graca continued to find ways to help, not just in the dorms, but in the wider community. During Covid, he volunteered with Auburn Schools to deliver food, provide free transportation and mentor students. He also helped a local health social service organization communicate Covid messages to local immigrant populations. Even now, he volunteers as a vocal engineer at the church we both attend. “I’m inspired by everyone in the community who gives back to give back as well,” he tells me.

This month, as we head into graduation and summer vacation, I’m proud to celebrate Graca and all of our young Mainers for their accomplishments over the past school year. In the face of so much adversity, Graca’s resilience, determination and drive took him straight to the top. So many other young Mainers – those born here and those who have recently made Lewiston their home – are realizing the same.

Héritier Nosso is a health promotion coordinator and community organizer in Lewiston.

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