The Wholehearted Hero: Erica Kaze

I'm so excited to introduce you to October's Wholehearted Hero. This woman has challenged me in so many ways. She let me into her world, allowed me to humbly (and at times naively) ask questions, and shared vulnerably about her experiences and reality as a minority and non-American citizen. To say I learned from her is an understatement.

Walking with Erica has marked me and I consider it an honor and privilege to be a part of her journey. She's influenced much of my own thoughts, worldview, and even future plans. I hope you are just as inspired and challenged by her openness and passion as she writes below!

1. Hi Erica! Tell us a little bit about yourself and where you came from. What drew you to Baylor
University, to Finance, and ultimately staying in Waco to work at a local bank after graduation? 

I was born in Burundi, one of the smallest countries in Africa, located in East Africa. When I was 13 years old, my family and I moved to Rwanda, also located in East Africa. I graduated from Riviera High School (RHS), a private boarding school located 30 min away from the capital city of Rwanda, Kigali , then I came to Texas for college. I recently graduated from Baylor University with a degree in Finance. Baylor is well known at RHS because of the yearly summer trips the business school takes to Rwanda. They partner with RHS to work on different entrepreneurship projects and competitions. During my freshman and sophomore years of college, I thought I wanted to be an engineer simply because so many family members are engineers. It is also a joke among Africans that African children only have three career options: doctor, engineer or lawyer. But then the summer after my sophomore year, I realized that I would probably be miserable for most of my life if I end up working as an engineer. So I switch to business and after talking to the Baylor professor who leads the summer trips to Rwanda, I realized that my passion for numbers could turn into a career that I could also use back at home. So that is how I ended up with a finance major. I chose to work in banking for multiple reasons. Some of it being that banks have the potential of changing the future of a community and that is something I am so passionate about especially since Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world.

2. Listening to your experience about job searching as an international student has been extremely eye-opening for me. What’s it like trying to get hired as a minority member? What about as a non U.S. citizen? 

It is practically impossible to get a job offer as an international student in the U.S. especially as an undergraduate student. This is because after graduation, we have about 12 months to work or intern in the U.S. then if a company wants to keep us on their payroll, they need to apply for a H-1B work visa for us and that's where it gets tricky. There is never a guarantee that a student will get a work visa even if they have a job offer which is why most companies don't hire us. But of course, there are exceptions to this. This is the biggest battle I've ever had to fight. This process became discouraging pretty quickly when amazing opportunities kept closing simply because my
citizenship is different.

3. Have you experienced bias in the work place or in the hiring process? If so, how?

Oh, absolutely! While I was interviewing most recruiters would always point out the fact that my English is "perfect". Apparently, I should sound different simply because I grew up in Africa. Also, just this week I was told by one of my supervisors that maybe I should stop reading books and news articles in French so that my English writing skills could improve. I have been speaking English and writing it for 9 years. 

4. What does unconscious bias mean to you? What biases do you face on a regular basis? 

Unconscious bias to me is simply stereotyping a person or group of people and expecting them to be/do certain things a certain way simply because they belong to a particular race or ethnicity. I will be the first one to say that I also struggle with this one. Two weekends ago, I was in NYC and my Uber driver who took me to the airport was from Uzbekistan and I found myself wondering why this Asian guy was playing rap music in the car and was jamming to it. I found myself doing the same thing that I hate when people stereotype me when I am listening to
country music since I am black. Lord, help us all.

5. What was it like being a minority in a predominately white community and university? What are some challenges you face regularly?

I struggled a lot with being a minority at Baylor but also within my church community. For my first two years in Waco, I just felt like I didn't connect with anyone and it was really hard for me to make friends. Not only was I black at a predominantly white school and white church, I was also from a different country, my culture was different, and everything about me was different compared to the typical Baylor student. I have heard that research has revealed that the lack of early and meaningful exposure to other groups of people often makes it easier for us to quickly identify and remember people of our own ethnicity or race while we often struggle to do the same for others.

I can attest that this is true. During those first two years at Baylor, white girls didn't really befriend me. I had to make effort after effort to become friends with some of the girls I knew but it just seemed like the efforts were coming from one way. I remember one Tuesday morning during my first year at Baylor going to class and noticing this girl I had seen around church. At this point it was the spring semester and I honestly still couldn’t tell you who my friends were. So I said to myself, "she seems nice and already has a black friend, maybe if I go sit next to her we
would become friends too?" Three years later, Meryn is one of my best friends. But I don't take all the credit for how our friendship started because Meryn had decided in high school that she was going to be intentional about her group of friends and specifically befriend people of other races and ethnicities. Her willingness and intentionality opened a door for us to become friends.

Pictured above is Erica and her friend Meryn. 

Pictured above is Erica and her friend Meryn. 

6. What's something you wish majority members knew about you? What's something you feel most majority members assume about you? 

I will probably never fully fit into your stereotype of a black person. I hear black people can't swim, but I was on the swimming team of my high school and I was pretty good at it. So just get to know me. Ask me questions instead of assuming. 

7. In your opinion, what does racial reconciliation look like? And what steps can I take as a
majority to bridge the gap?

When I hear those two words, racial reconciliation, I think of Revelation 7:9 - "After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands."

I dream of days when we won't have a black church, Hispanic church or Asian church but simply a church full of people from every nation, tribe and language worshipping God together.
One of my favorite things this year is that I am living with 4 amazing girls. Our house of 5 is very diverse: two white girls, one Hispanic, one Asian and me. As I spend more time with my roommates, I am learning so much about them, their families, and I finally understand why most Asian people take off their shoes before entering a room. Haha. It is amazing how much we learn when we get out of our bubble and put ourselves in situations with people who don't look like us or who were not raised like we were.

My recommendation to everyone who is reading this is to get out of your bubble. Be strategic and figure out where people are then go and do life with them. If you live in Waco, you are
probably not going to find a lot of African Americans at your favorite local coffee shop, Common Grounds, but I bet you would make at least one friend at the local YMCA while playing basketball.

8. Have you ever been treated differently because of your race or background? If so, when? When are you most aware of your race?

Oh for sure! One time, a friend pulled my ponytail as I was walking past him. It wasn’t in a mean way. I think he was fascinated by my box braids. But his actions left me wondering if he would have done the same things if I was white. By the way, just a public service announcement, please don't touch a black person's hair without their permission. Most of us hate that. It makes us feel like you are petting our heads like you pet your dog. Please don’t do it, it is disrespectful and uncomfortable. 

Recently, I have had a hard time attending social events. No one wants to be the only black person at a wedding full of white people.

9. What are some of your dreams for your life right now? Where do you see yourself in 5-10

I am currently working in the banking industry. I am really enjoying my job and I can see myself being in this industry long-term. The banking industry is dominated by white male which bothers me so much. My plan is to earn my MBA in the next 2-4 years and hopefully end up in a leadership role in a few years. It is about time more women and people of color have a seat in the C-suite.

10. One of my favorite things about you is how confident you are - there's a powerful strength
about you that impresses me every time we're together. What advice would you give to other
minorities struggling to find their own voice? And how did you find your voice and embrace your
own identity? 

Wow, thanks for that compliment. I think that I draw my confidence from my determination to not be ignorant. I spend a lot of time educating myself. I do my best at keeping myself knowledgeable by listening to the news daily, podcasts, and reading books. So when I interact with people, I have a well that I can draw knowledge from and not feel embarrassed. But I would say that my relationship with God has played the most important part. When you are told by a racist person that they don’t like black people because “black is a bad color”, you just have to figure out
what the creator says about you then decide who you are going to listen to. And according to my Bible, Psalm
139:13-14 says “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, and my soul knows it very well.” I just took this as the truth I need to believe and that God defines who I am and not this world.

11. What comes to mind when you hear the term, "wholehearted living"? 

When I hear those two words “living wholeheartedly”, my brain automatically asks me which areas of my life need improvement. I do my best to not be complacent with where I am in life. So once in a while, I evaluate my life and try to identify areas that need some improvement. I try to not overdo it so I choose 1-3 areas then work on them until I am satisfied with the results. These are not New Year’s resolutions by any means. These are things that I know for a fact that if I don’t make changes now, there will be consequences in the future.

12. Is there anyone or anything that's been inspiring you to live wholeheartedly recently? Maybe a favorite author or podcast? 

I just started a new job recently and there have been lots of changes in my life. Right now, I am learning so much about personal finance so I visit Dave Ramsey’s website pretty often, I am also
listening to podcasts: Millennial Money and The Clever Girls Know. I also listen to a podcast from the New York Times every morning called “The Daily”.

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Born in Burundi and raised in Rwanda, Erica is currently living and working in Texas. She surrendered her life to Jesus when she was 15 years old and never looked back. She discovered college football when she came to Texas for college and now absolutely loves it. She enjoys listening to rap music and sleeping in on Saturday mornings. She is passionate about politics, racial reconciliation, education and anything business related. 

If you're curious about learning more about unconscious bias and how it affects minority members, like Erica, sign up to receive my free work guide. Because of my friendship with people like Erica, I'm more committed than ever to overcoming my own bias in order to love the people in front of me. My life has become much richer because of it!