Some across Arkansas might be surprised, in light of the routine drumbeat of negative press coverage about Harrison supposedly being a racist community, to meet the young man chosen by the student body as annual Homecoming king for North Arkansas College.
Not only is Yassin Mbugi bright, witty and engaging, he's also a native of east Africa's Tanzania and is the most popular student on campus. After spending an hour with him, I could see Yassin is more a positive force of nature than just a student in the school's foreign exchange program.
I wasn't sure what to expect when 23-year-old Yassin visited the morning coffee group with Joe Berry, Northark's associate vice president for economic and work-force development. Advance word said we'd be immediately drawn to this man with a wide smile and quick wit who speaks better English than anyone around the table. It was readily apparent to see why he's admired by his peers.
Life for Yassin at the college where he lives with two other Tanzanian students and their Hispanic roommate in the school's International House of Pioneers (IHOP--catchy, eh?) and during his year in the community has been among the most enjoyable and fulfilling experiences of his life, he said.
"Everyone I meet here is friendly and helpful. They've all been just great," he said, noting that even a Harrison police officer stopped him out of the blue in a Subway not long ago and handed Yassin his personal cell number. "He told me if I ever needed any kind of help to call him. Can you believe that happened? We still have friendly talks every now and then. There has been a lot of negativity in the media about the town. But I've found it's been quite the opposite."
The last thing this youthful go-getter (who I believe could mature into Tanzania's president) has needed during his months on campus is help. Although he speaks his native Swahili, he said he first learned to speak fluent English in his home, then attended good schools. Tanzania has a surprising number of quality international schools owned by private investors, he added.
"Mother works for the U.S. embassy and my father is a retired major general in the Tanzanian army who remains an adviser. I grew up with three brothers and two sisters in a close-knit family with good communication skills."
So how did Yassin wind up leaving Tanzania with its famed Serengeti plain and Mount Kilimanjaro for this community of 13,000 deep in the Ozarks? Yassin said he began looking in the United States and was offered a scholarship at Northark. Initially he was a little skittish about coming to Harrison because of media reports about its supposedly racist culture. (He clearly hadn't seen the state Martin Luther King Jr. Commission's designation of Harrison as a "Dream Keepers" community" because of its positive achievements in race relations, a designation relatively few communities earn.)
Because Northark President Randy Esters had well-established ties to Tanzania, the college maintains an ongoing partnership with that nation and its educational system. Yassin and others were encouraged to attend on scholarships; he will spend another year earning his business and management degree.
"Yassin is truly one of a kind," said Esters. "The sky is the limit for that unique young man. Mark my words, he will rise over his lifetime as high as he chooses to rise."
Yassin said he compared tuition rates with a four-year-college and made the decision to attend Northark on his own, largely because it was better financially, although his father did offer constructive wisdom, which was nothing new.
"He told me he knew I could connect wherever I went, and to always keep focusing on the positive," Yassin said with a typically wide grin. "He also said when God opens a door, there's always a reason for that. Well, I'm here and happy, and being positive has been a part of my nature."
Yassin's exuberance is best on display at every men's and women's home Pioneer basketball game, where he stays both vocal and constantly active. One might rightly say he really gets his boogie on once the whistle blows. "He becomes engrossed in the games. There's no doubt Yassin is probably both teams' best fan," said Berry. "He's anything but shy about showing his support."
It was surprising to learn that, in some ways, Tanzanian society (a mix of Christian and Islamic faiths) has been ahead of our own. "For instance," Yassin said. "We have been using those little chips on the credit cards for many years. It's only been recently they have become popular here in the U.S."
He's become so enamored of his stay that Yassin says he'll return to Tanzania after graduation, renew his visa, and return to attend either the University of Central Arkansas or Arkansas Tech to complete his full four-year degree.
Meanwhile, Yassin says he's had no problems adjusting to the climate changes between continents, even during the winter in North Arkansas. "Hey, if you want to see cold, let me take you to Kilimanjaro one day," he said with a laugh. "I can promise you that will be cold."
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at email@example.com.
Editorial on 03/05/2019
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