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How a simple gesture of human kindness quickly transformed the IT staffer's life and the paths of two promising students from Africa.

Audrey Seaman ’13
The Norwich Record

The start of college can be overwhelming. But imagine that your first days at the university are also your very first days in the U.S., and it is January in Vermont, and you’re from Nigeria, where temperatures soar above 80 degrees that time of year. Nobody tells you to prepare for the first time your nostrils freeze together when you inhale outdoors—it just happens.

This was the reality for Kenechukwu “Kene” Onwe ’21 when he arrived at Norwich University this past January to begin his architecture studies. During his first days in Vermont, he wanted to call home to let his family know he was safe and well. Unfortunately, Kene didn’t have a working phone, so he paid a visit to the university Help Desk.

There, he met Allen Gagnon, a senior user support specialist with Norwich’s Information Technology Department who offered him the use of the office phone. During that encounter, Allen began to see that all wasn’t well in the student’s life. “I just got this feeling that something wasn’t right,” he explains.

So he made a point of reconnecting with Kene, and learned that the 19-year-old was facing serious financial challenges. His sponsor had backed out at the last minute—a sponsor is a third party who agrees to help with tuition, room, and board. He desperately wanted to work, but a delay in processing his Social Security card also delayed his ability to get a job. On top of that, his F1 visa restricted how much and where he could work. Kene’s situation was critical and acute. Without help, he would have to return to Nigeria.

“He didn’t like accepting help from me, but I told him he had to,” Allen says.

After exhausting all sources of financial assistance available to international students, Allen acted on advice he received from Norwich senior vice president for student affairs, Frank Vanecek, and started looking at the adoption laws in Vermont. He learned that he could adopt an adult, even though Kene’s family is alive and well in Nigeria. In March, Allen, a bachelor, became a first-time parent. Kene moved into Allen’s Williamstown home. He is now eligible for U.S. financial assistance as well as Allen’s employee tuition scholarship.

Allen expressed genuine surprise at the suggestion that he has channeled the spirit of Norwich University founder, Captain Alden Partridge. As a single man, Partridge adopted George Musalas Colvocoresses, a boy who had escaped Greece after the massacre of his family. George grew up to become a lifetime Naval officer, serving on the Wilkes Expedition and as commander of the Saratoga during the Civil War. The low-key Allen shies away from the comparison, but Kene, who also goes by Samuel, wants the world to know about his adoptive father’s generosity, saying, “He just kept telling me, ‘You owe me nothing. All I want you to do is someday help someone else.’”

After knowing each other for just a few months, Allen and Kene became a family. And in May, the family expanded to three when Allen welcomed Kene’s friend, civil engineering major Emmanuel Adu ’21 from Ghana, into his home. Without the stress of housing costs, Emmanuel is now able to focus on his tuition. “Every single day, Allen’s helping hands motivate me to keep fighting,” Emmanuel says.

Over the summer, Kene and Emmanuel worked six days a week for Benoit Electric on the Norwich construction projects; both have been asked back next summer. During the school year, they will work for Sodexo, Norwich’s foodservice provider. While Allen’s help hasn’t answered all of the financial challenges, he has put their goals within reach, and he remains determined to do everything he can to get his newfound family across the finish line with their education. Most important, he has given them hope.

“We must keep on trying,” Allen says in true Norwich spirit. “We must never give up.”

The ultra-runner and human rights scholar discusses his work in Zimbabwe, the country’s repressive political climate, and baseball.

Updated September 12, 2017

Norwich history professor and ultra-marathoner Rowland Brucken rarely takes the easy path—he is a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan, after all—or the conventional one. During high school, he didn’t start a band, he founded a chapter of Amnesty International. Today, Brucken serves as the human rights organization’s Zimbabwe country expert and testifies on behalf of Zimbabweans seeking U.S. asylum. At Norwich, he teaches courses on human rights and international law, civil rights, and the prosecution of human rights abuses, as well as surveys of U.S. foreign policy, U.S. history, and the history of baseball. Brucken says he strives in the classroom to inspire students to inform themselves, engage with peers, and reach their own conclusions. “If students have the ability and will to do that, then I’m the happiest professor ever.”

What questions do you explore in your scholarship?

The main question around a lot of my research now is, how can societies heal from mass trauma? Whether it’s torture, genocide, systemic human rights abuses, what are the alternatives? What are the options that victims and survivors have? A second, larger question is, how has international human rights law evolved, especially since World War II? In what areas, regions, and times has it been effective in deterring human rights abuses or holding people accountable? In what areas has it been ineffective?

You returned to Zimbabwe earlier this year. What were you doing there?

I gave a paper on truth commissions to a government-sponsored research conference, which was a bit awkward. I also met with civil society groups, human rights organizations, to talk about how Amnesty can best help them given that the next year is probably going to be particularly difficult in Zimbabwe. Lastly—and something unexpected—as part of a transitional justice working group, I gave some feedback to the parliament of Zimbabwe on a truth commission bill that they are now debating. What kind of truth commission to set up in response to past human rights abuses.

You said next year will be difficult there. Why?

There are national elections scheduled for 2018. Whenever there have been elections, the government has increased surveillance and repression of perceived political challengers, as well as human right activists who document human rights abuses. Also, the ruling party might implode; the opposition party is relatively fragmented; and the economy has bottomed out. All of those make for a very uncertain campaign. The government with a monopoly on violence can act unpredictably and arbitrarily in employing torture and detention, among other weapons.

How did your interest in Zimbabwe come about?

It started when I studied abroad when I was in college, during my junior year back in 1990. I wanted to go a country that no one in my college had ever been to. I was at a place called Ranche House College in Harare, the capital. But I also ended up hitchhiking all over the country on my own.

What distinguished that experience for you?

Zimbabweans are culturally an incredibly generous and kind people. For example, when you ask somebody here in the United States, “How are you?” They say, “I’m fine.” In Zimbabwe, it translates into, “I am fine—if you are fine.” There’s a communitarian emphasis. I met many Zimbabweans all over the country. People would be cooking by the side of the road. I would just stop off and have dinner with them. They took me in as a college student, a 20-year-old guy who didn’t really know what he was doing with his life. They took me in, and they gave me their food, their wisdom, their hospitality. I’ve never forgotten that. It’s a debt that I can never repay as a human being.

Did you run on your most recent trip?

I did. I did. I forgot that Harare was a mile above sea level. I ran the same distance, but was often out of breath and had to run slow. I’m not one to back down. I just adjust my pace.

Are you still training for ultra-marathons?

I am. I’ve got one more 100-miler left in me. I’m doing two marathons this [year]. I’m looking at doing another 50-miler in the fall. It’s foolishness is what it is.

You study the history of baseball. Did you play as a youngster? Were you a fan?

I played horribly in little league for two years. I grew up in Cleveland, and so I’m a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan. When I was in elementary and junior high school, the Indians would finish last or next to last every year. Rooting for a losing baseball team, it taught me a lot about life. About being grateful for small victories and about loyalty and that every opening day is a new year. So hope emerges every year right in springtime with flowers and trees. Baseball has such rich history. I couldn’t imagine teaching a course on football history that brings in so many cultural, economic, foreign policy, political, race, class, and gender aspects as baseball does.

Interview edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Explaining Divergent Development Trajectories: A Comparison of Nation-Building in Post-Independence Botswana and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe

Supported by a 2015-16 independent study leave, Professor Rowly Brucken, Ph.D., completed the first chapter of his next book, tentatively titled, Tangled Treads: American Human Rights Policy, 1776 to 1990. The work builds on a Dana Fellowship that identified four themes of American human rights policy: protect American sovereignty, limit human rights to civil and political guarantees, enforce at the state level primarily, and seek to spread these rights around the globe.

The chapter on the American Revolution applies these four themes to the political struggle to justify separation from Great Britain and to mobilize the population for war and sacrifice. These themes derive from Enlightenment thought as filtered through revolutionaries living across the Atlantic who were determined to create a republic, a form of government new to the era. He will use this first chapter to draft a proposal for a book contract with Northern Illinois University Press.

Editor’s note: Independent study leaves constitute the University’s sabbatical program, with awards based on scholarly proposals for projects intended to enhance the professional effectiveness of faculty through study, research, writing, travel related to professional development, and/or practical experience in the faculty member’s field.

“Irish Merchant Princess and Abolitionist: The Story of Isabel Jennings”

Supported by a 2015-16 independent study leave, Professor of English Patricia Ferreira completed a 10,000-word independent article, titled Leaving Frederick Douglass’s Arm: Isabel Jennings on Her Own, and submitted it for publication consideration to Nineteenth Century Literature. Prof. Ferreira fully researched the context for the material artifacts she has acquired relating to Jennings’s life. She also drafted a book proposal for a feminist biography of her subject for Cork University Press and met with the director while in Ireland. She has nearly completed drafting a book-length manuscript which, once accepted for publication, will serve as the culmination of her work on Jennings. While very proud of her accomplishments during her independent study leave, Prof. Ferreira is most gratified by what she has learned in the process: how the industrialism of the 19th-century was centrally linked to the social reform of the era; how women’s philanthropic work in the early part of the century was an important stepping stone to their demands for equal rights, including the right to vote, in the later part of the century and the beginning of the next; how Irish women were an integral part of the anti-slavery campaign and the way Jennings distinguished herself as a leader.

Editor’s note: Independent study leaves constitute the University’s sabbatical program, with awards based on scholarly proposals for projects intended to enhance the professional effectiveness of faculty through study, research, writing, travel related to professional development, and/or practical experience in the faculty member’s field.

Norwich University’s Center for Global Resilience and Security together with Vermont Emergency Management will co-host Vermont’s Hazard Mitigation Action Planning workshop on Tuesday, Aug. 22, from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. in Kreitzberg Library.

The workshop brings together Vermonters from diverse walks of life to develop a sound plan and informed actions to build resilience and create a stronger Vermont. In May, the 2018 Hazard Mitigation Plan’s vision that “Vermont will be safe and resilient in the face of climate change and natural disasters” was approved. The mission of the group: “To protect life, property, natural resources and quality of life in Vermont by reducing our vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters” was also approved.

Several goals, and overarching principles now guide the work assigned to three groups in the following topic areas: Environment & Natural Systems; Built Environment; and Plans and Policies. In addition, a steering committee will work on a fourth goal categorized under Education and Outreach, which emerged from the meetings of the steering committee, and working groups so far.

The meeting is open to the public. Anyone interested in joining, please register with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Learn more about Vermont Emergency Management here: http://vem.vermont.gov/plans/SHMP.

Launched in 2017, the Center for Global Resilience and Security (CGRS) is a Norwich University research center of excellence dedicated to the advancement of the interrelationships between human resilience and sense of security in the face of global challenges. Its first major initiative upon its founding was to take over the role of coordinating the Resilient Vermont Network and host its annual conference, among other activities. CGRS is focused on challenges in the areas of climate change, water, energy, and infrastructure and their impact on resilience and security. CGRS will craft creative, innovative, and sustainable solutions for building resilient communities, through inter-disciplinary research and design collaboration.

Norwich News

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  • Amrutaa Vibho is literally shooting for the stars

    Amrutaa Vibho is literally shooting for the stars

    • Norwich In The News
  • Cadet Gabriel Gaetz wins at the OCR World Championship

    Cadet Gabriel Gaetz wins at the OCR World Championship

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  • Cadet Joseph Marsh learns from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Walla Walla, Washington.

    Cadet Joseph Marsh learns from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Walla Walla, Washington.

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    Norwich to hold 28th Annual Military Writers’ Symposium

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    Norwich welcomes 650 new students to begin the 22–23 school year

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  • NU dedicates Senator Patrick Leahy School of Cybersecurity and Advanced Computing

    NU dedicates Senator Patrick Leahy School of Cybersecurity and Advanced Computing

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