It was a simple phone call that brought Kelly Umutoni 7,500 miles from Kigali, Rwanda to Clemson University.
At home in 2017, Umutoni was exploring graduate programs in architecture, and she had cast a worldwide net. Clemson was high on her list, but she had never stepped foot in South Carolina and knew no one at the school.
Then she got a call from Dan Harding, associate professor of architecture and director of graduate programs in the School of Architecture.
“I was able to talk to him at length about the program and what to expect,” Umutoni said. “Not many schools take the time to call, so that’s when I knew it was the sort of environment that I wanted for a graduate program.”
As she began to look more closely at Clemson, Umutoni also noticed that Clemson’s architecture graduates often enjoy considerable success in their careers.
“Seeing where graduates were getting placed made it very attractive,” she said.
Three years later, Umutoni is set to graduate from Clemson in May with a master’s degree in architecture, a prestigious national award to her credit, and a job lined up in Washington, D.C.
This summer, Umutoni is slated to join the Gensler architectural firm as a technical designer, specializing in work for corporate clients. It was a job she secured after a summer internship with Gensler in 2019.
“I’m ready to begin my career, but Clemson has been a great experience,” she said. “Professors inspire you to produce better work than you thought possible.”
Drawn to architecture
Umutoni, 25, grew up in Rwanda but was born in Burundi, where her family was exiled due to the persecution of the Rwandan Tutsi people from 1990-94. Umutoni was born only a few months after the genocide against the Tutsi that claimed the lives of as many, or more than, 1 million Rwandans.
Umutoni has only known Rwanda as a peaceful and increasingly prosperous nation.
“There’s been a complete turnaround,” she said. “I think it’s one of the safest places to be. It’s really exciting. It gets better every day.”
Early in her life, Umutoni felt pulled toward architecture and design.
“I found it fascinating to draw buildings,” she said.
Hoping to attend college in the United States, Umutoni arrived in Connecticut in 2011 as a high school senior.
“It was tough,” she said. “At the time, I spoke very little English.”
Today, Umutoni is fluent in three languages: English, French, and Kinyarwanda, the latter being the official language of Rwanda.
For her undergraduate degree, Umutoni chose Judson University, a small Christian liberal arts university in Elgin, Illinois.
The supportive environment appealed to her at Judson and later at Clemson.
“I think it’s important to be able to talk to a professor and get that one-on-one interaction,” she said.
In 2016, Umutoni graduated from Judson with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and then spent a year back home in Kigali working at an architectural firm.
It was during that year she received the pivotal phone call from Professor Harding.
“Making and maintaining a personal connection with each of our students is important to our program and the Clemson spirit,” Harding said. “Certainly, coming from a place like Rwanda is a big step, and making sure someone feels welcome here is of the utmost importance.”
“He calls every student who gets accepted into the master’s program,” Umutoni said. “This is a school that obviously cares about its students.”
Support and achievement
Once at Clemson, Umutoni found that the supportive environment also extended to the students.
Friday morning pickup basketball games with other architecture students were one highlight of the week for the 6-foot-3-inch Umutoni.
“I love my classmates,” she said.
Umutoni and fellow master’s student Josh Guertin recently received a prestigious Award of Merit from the Society of American Registered Architects (SARA).
Their award-winning design project, “A Vertical Social Street,” is a sustainable, multi-level complex in the warehouse district of Minneapolis, Minnesota that includes both residential and commercial space.
“Kelly is an amazing student, a great example of what our program is and all we hope to be,” Harding said.
In 2019, she was presented the school’s annual Martin A. Davis award, which recognizes one graduate student for excellence in applied research, academic standing, and professional promise.
While in the United States, Umutoni has traveled whenever she could. And for an architecture student, America’s diverse cities are an ideal classroom.
“The U.S. is so big, and all the cities are different,” she said. “I try to see as much as I can.”
Ultimately, Umutoni hopes to return to Rwanda to be a part of the continued momentum of her nation.
“It’s really nice to be able to give back to your country, but I feel like I have so much to learn,” she said. “I want to learn as much as I can here, so that I can make a better contribution.”
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