THOUSAND OAKS — Gabriel Laizer grew up 11,000 miles from here, in a home without running water or electricity.
Today, five years after leaving his home in Tanzania--and after learning English, acquiring a taste for pizza and knocking on scores of dormitory doors--Laizer has been elected Cal Lutheran University's student body president.
Having cable TV and telephones may be new to the 23-year-old Tanzanian, but leadership is not.
His leadership ability was part of what prompted schoolteacher and Lutheran missionary Ruth Klavano to invite Laizer to move with her to Vancouver, Wash., after she taught in Tanzania for 18 months.
"I saw that he had a combination of outstanding character, academics, strong leadership and compassion for others," Klavano said.
When Klavano's teaching stint ended in 1993, she offered to take him back to the United States so he could get an education.
It took about a year for his paperwork to go through, allowing Laizer to leave his parents, four sisters and two brothers to join Klavano in 1994 at her home in Washington, where the Swahili-speaking Laizer went to high school for two years, worked on his English and adjusted to American life.
"The first food I had in America was pizza," Laizer recalled. "I didn't like the smell but I tried to eat one piece and got the biggest bellyache of my life."
For the first month he ate the only two foods he recognized from his homeland--Sprite and potato chips.
He ate them for breakfast, lunch and dinner until he could not stand them any more. Then he discovered that Chinese food was similar in taste and texture to Tanzanian food. He slowly began to taste and experiment with other foods and over time his taste buds have conformed.
"Now pizza is one of my favorite foods," he said. And when on visits to his home in Arusha, Tanzania--a 45-hour flight from Southern California--he misses it.
But, that isn't the only change in himself he has noticed.
Laizer finds he has trouble fitting in with some of his family's traditions now.
"One night when I was in Tanzania I came home and went into the kitchen to heat up some food for myself," he said. "My father came in and was upset because I had not woken up one of my sisters to make it for me. The kitchen is off-limits to men."
When Laizer spent a semester in Washington, D.C., working for Amnesty International, a nonprofit human rights organization, he learned the importance of speaking out against some African traditions such as female genital mutilation and the practice of young girls being traded to husbands for cattle, he said.
"To change these things will take time," Laizer said.
He values his American education and hopes to return to Tanzania and someday become a diplomat, he said.
He is honing his political and leadership skills at Cal Lutheran by taking on such issues as improving student-administration communication and creating more parking spaces.
Lazier, who has been a Lutheran all his life, attends Cal Lutheran with scholarship money and a gift from the 50-year-old Klavano, who is single with no children.
"I told his parents if they let him come with me I would treat him like my own son," Klavano said.
She has contributed thousands of dollars to help him with school expenses and plane tickets home, even though it has meant less money in her retirement fund and driving an older car.
She saw he was worth it when she encountered him in a hot classroom in Tanzania with 20 chairs, windows with no glass, no air-conditioning and more than 50 other students. She noticed how he went the extra mile to help a classmate with a deformed foot and how he was always there to assist her in understanding the ways of his people when she got frustrated.
"I am very proud of Gabriel and not surprised he was voted president," Klavano said. "I know what a wonderful person he is, and I'm glad others also appreciate him."
His interest in fellow students continues today, said Bill Rosser, dean of students. "Gabe intensely cares about other people and their welfare," Rosser said. "His great compassion makes watching him interact with other students a pleasure. . . . He's a wonderful fellow."
Laizer got 59% of the vote in the election last spring. The university has 1,500 undergraduate students, about 75 of them international students from a variety of countries including France, Hungary, Japan, Korea, China, India, Sweden, Norway and Russia.
He ran for student body president after serving as International Club president and as a student senator his sophomore and junior years.
Last year he spent two days knocking on every dormitory door and introducing himself during final exam week, he said.
Since he won, he spends much of his time overseeing the university's student government and trying to make a difference.
"When I was in fourth grade, we learned geography and I knew then I wanted to travel and learn," Laizer said. "My parents always made me believe I could do anything, so I knew one day I would go. I just didn't know how it would happen."