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Coming full circle: CCV’s David Tabaruka gives back
When David Tabaruka started as the Financial Controller for the Community College of Vermont last March, the new job felt like a homecoming and a triumph. “I said, hey, I’ve been here before – but this time, I’m part of the staff rather than a student,” he says with a broad smile. “It feels really good to look back and see how far I’ve come over the last 18 years.”
David’s journey began with multiple wars, a seven-month-long jungle trek, and a long wait for refugee resettlement. His family fled Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, and he spent his teenage years in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After living for a couple of years in Bukavu, a city in the eastern part of the DRC, war broke out there as well. So he and his family walked seven months through the jungle, crossed the Congo River, and settled in a small village in the Republic of Congo. But within a month, fighting started there as well.
“We went from a war to a war to a war,” says David, who managed, despite the chaos, to earn a degree in economics during that time from the University of Congo. “But the aftermath of all of those wars was a lot of refugees and a lot of poverty.”
After applying to the United Nations for refugee resettlement in the United States, the family’s application was finally approved. When David arrived in Winooski on November 30, 2004, with his mother, sister, brothers, and nephews, the temperature was below freezing, the wind was blowing, and the only English word he knew how to say was “yes.” He was 26 years old.
He credits the Vermont Refugee Program, and its many volunteers, for supporting him and his family as they figured out their new life. In January 2005, they started working for Rhino Foods, a company that employed a lot of refugees. “We worked with people from Bosnia, Vietnam, all over. You realize, ‘I’m not the only one.’ We met people we could relate to, and we started to believe that things were possible,” he says.
David spoke four languages – French, Lingala, Swahili and Kinyarwanda – but barely any English. So he took ESL classes in the mornings and worked second shift in the afternoons and evenings. David and his brother got around on bicycles in March and April of that year, waiting to buy a car so they could save money for rent.
As he got more comfortable with the language, David recalls that “one thing that was very important to me was to figure out what to do with my education.” But he soon realized it would be very difficult getting his credentials accepted here. “So I decided to start over, and I wanted to find out how to get into CCV. That’s where VSAC came in.”
He connected with VSAC’s Education Opportunity Center, which supports adults and non-traditional students looking to complete their college education. Both David and his brother worked with education counselor Monica Sargent. “Monica is close to my heart. She did so much for us,” David recalls. “She helped us figure out financial aid, which was a complete mystery. That was the most confusing thing, and usually is for any student,” he says.
David attended CCV for two years, completing courses in English, business, and accounting. “My goal was to improve my English, to prove that I could succeed, then transfer to a four-year college,” he recalls. “I got good grades, which provided confirmation and encouragement. CCV prepared me for the next level,” he says, which, in his case, was earning a degree in International Business from Champlain College. He later earned his master’s degree in finance and accounting from Southern New Hampshire University.
All of that was possible, he says, “because I walked away from CCV with zero debt, thanks to the help I received from VSAC.”
After graduating from Champlain in 2010, he got a job as a junior financial analyst at a major advertising agency in New York. He worked at Ogilvy & Mather for three years, by which time he had gotten married and started a family. When David and his wife Ashley were ready for a more family-friendly lifestyle, he took a job with Bombardier, where he worked for the next four and a half years, first in Plattsburgh and then in Montreal, rising from financial analyst to controller.
“All of these organizations helped me build my career, brick by brick, and I’m really grateful for all of the people I came across,” says David.
By 2022, the couple had three school-age sons – Ayden, Elijah, and Zander, ages 10, 8, and 4. They decided to come back to Vermont to be closer to family, and David turned once again to CCV.
“It’s been a blast,” he says of his first year managing the college’s finances. “I love that I’m now giving back to a school that gave me so much. I want to use my role at CCV to inspire a new generation to learn and work hard and keep growing themselves.”
He’s also started those conversations at home. “I tell my sons that education is important. When I look back, I’m really glad that I made the decision [to go back to school]. It was all worth it. If my boys go to college, that would be great, but I tell them they need to do something that will help them sustain themselves, whether that’s college or trade school.”
David has been invited to share his story at CCV’s scholarship luncheon this spring, and he is also an active member of Vermont Professionals of Color. “I’m excited to help create space for more people of color, so they can see themselves in my work,” he says. “I love that I can help others like me.” He is also a member of the Rotary Club of Burlington. “I enjoy serving a community that has welcomed me and helped me in starting over.”
For additional information on college and career planning and help with financial aid from VSAC, go to vsac.org/financialaid and check out our online workshops and events. To find out about our programs for adult students, go to vsac.org/adultlearners. You can also call 800-642-3177, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and visit online at email@example.com.