September 29, 2022
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Community college student Graça Muzela pursues a career in electrical engineering

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Graca Muzela was just named the Washington County Community College Student of the Year. And yet, Graca nearly couldn’t go to college in the first place. When he first applied in 2020, he was rejected due to his status as an asylum seeker.

Graca Muzela was just named the Washington County Community College Student of the Year.

Graca Muzela has been named the Washington County Community College Student of the Year. Submitted photo

Requirements for non-citizens vary state-to-state. In Maine, Graca was able to get his application to WCCC accepted after showing proof of his asylum claim and eligibility for legal residency, and scheduling a meeting between admissions officers and his immigration caseworker. That makes him lucky compared to asylum seekers in other states like Georgia, where aspiring students can only apply to college 12-24 months after their asylum application is approved — a process that can take many years.

Graca’s family was fortunate to have their asylum approved in only two years “I just thank God that my family was able to get asylum in a short period of time,” he tells me. “It was worrying and stressful to not be sure about our future in the U.S.”

The family had good reason to worry. His father was a political activist in their native Angola, which put him at odds with certain officials. If they’d stayed, their life would have been endangered.

Graca and his parents arrived in 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 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 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 Graca’s ambition served him well. He was automatically enrolled in remedial math classes, a situation that is far too common for students with language barriers. He requested an official assessment — and tested three grade levels above where they had him. His teachers were so impressed that they encouraged him to enroll in free STEM courses at Lewiston Regional Technical Center. He signed up for 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 freshman year in WCCC’s Residential and Commercial Electric program, he felt like the underdog. Many of his classmates already had practical experience. But rather than be intimidated, Graca says “seeing them work hard pushed me to work so hard, too.”

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

It didn’t take long for Graca to achieve the academic success he sought. And when the faculty saw how hard he was working, they offered Graca Residential Advisor position. “I am a pretty open guy,” he admits, adding that he didn’t get to where he is without a little help from those who believed in him. As an RA, he could pay that support forward.

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

Throughout it all, Graca has continued to finds ways to help out, not just in the dorms, but in the broader community. During Covid, he volunteered with Auburn Schools to deliver food, provide free transportation and serve as a mentor to students. He also helped a local health social services organization communicate Covid messaging to local immigrant populations. Even now, he volunteers as the song engineer at the church we both attend. “I am inspired by all the people in the community who are giving back to give back as well,” he tells me.

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

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


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