Valerie Piraino left Rwanda when she was 4 and has never returned. "I've always wanted to go back, but it was such an abstract idea," said Piraino, a senior who graduated yesterday from the Maryland Institute College of Art.
So when Piraino learned during her commencement ceremony that she won a $25,000 travel grant that will let her return to her homeland to work for a year, she began to cry even as her classmates broke into applause.
"Most of my family was killed in the genocide, so the chance to go back is so overwhelming," she said after the ceremony, held at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Piraino, a 23-year-old from Baltimore County who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in general fine arts, is the first winner of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Travel Award.
The Gelmans, who lived in New York, were avid art fans. Their collection has been housed in museums there, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Trustees of their estate -- Jacques Gelman died in 1985 and Natasha Gelman in 1998 -- give away up to $500,000 in grants annually throughout the country.
"One of the most important things an artist can do is travel," said Gelman trustee Janet Neschis, adding that the couple thought all artists need to see the world.
Neschis approached MICA officials and proposed creating a grant. Though the Gelmans had no personal connection to the college, Neschis said the trustees saw it as "one of the leading arts institutes in the country."
School officials believe the Gelman grant is the largest such award at any arts college in the United States. MICA already offered two travel grants, both less than $5,000.
The school received the Gelman money in November and began accepting applications shortly afterward. Students had to outline their project, include a budget, and get faculty recommendations. Department chairs narrowed the field to 10 finalists, who exhibited their work just before graduation.
Thom Collins, director of Baltimore's Contemporary Museum, picked the winner.
Piraino plans to create memorials in Rwanda to the estimated 800,000 people who were killed during a murderous 100-day spree in 1994. Most of the victims were part of the minority Tutsis, and many were hacked to death by extreme members of the majority Hutus.
Piraino left the country in 1985 with her parents but still had more than 100 relatives in Rwanda. All were Tutsis.
During the killings, Piraino and her mother, Nathalie, would spend much of their time on the phone, trying to call friends and relatives in Rwanda to find out more. Most of the news was bad. "I have a few cousins left. Two aunts. And that's pretty much it," Piraino said.
In her application for the travel grant, she proposed creating statues, mainly of two hands shaking, to symbolize healing in Rwanda. The current president is trying to de-emphasize categories like Hutu and Tutsi and is trying to create a "Rwandan" identity. "My proposal works in collaboration with this sentiment," Piraino wrote.
Despite glowing reviews from her professors, Piraino didn't think she would win and began to think of alternative ways to return to Rwanda.
She said she had her fingers crossed yesterday but spent more time watching her 374 fellow graduates. MICA students are famous for decorating their gowns with drawings and artwork. One student put cicada shells around her cap.
When she was announced as the winner, Piraino literally collapsed, burying her face in her hands and leaning into her friend's shoulder. "I told you so, I told you you'd get it," said Laura Webster, who has known Piraino since high school.
Even after the graduation ceremony had ended, Piraino couldn't seem to believe her good fortune. "It seems surreal," she said as friends congratulated and hugged her. "I'm going back."