"When I finally got to digest it, I really cried," Makurumidze says from the college's Campus Center, recalling the long car ride with an uncle who described in detail how the deadly virus destroyed her family.
But the truth only fueled her desire to become an AIDS researcher and bring that knowledge home to Zimbabwe, a dream now in her sights thanks to U.S.-funded scholarship program that landed her in the Philadelphia suburbs.
In one sense, Makurumidze is a small piece of a much broader story - a tidal wave in recent years of international students attending the colleges and universities in the Philadelphia region. Nowhere has that wave crested higher than at Bryn Mawr, which U.S. News & World Report has ranked, using the most recent data from 2011-12, as No. 1 among the top liberal-arts colleges in international students.
Last year, 16 percent of Bryn Mawr students, and 20.8 percent of freshmen, were from other nations, and administrators said those numbers were growing. The college is on the cutting edge of a national trend, with the number of international undergrads and graduate students closing in on 600,000, an all-time high.
But underneath the skyrocketing stats are thousands of unique stories, few more compelling than that of Makurumidze, whose cheerful nature and determination to overcome her plight as an AIDS orphan has amazed everyone she has met since arriving Aug. 23 in Philadelphia.
"How she can be so adaptable and positive and enthusiastic considering her circumstances, and want to do something to stop this [the African AIDS epidemic], that's remarkable," said David Wolovitz of Glen Mills, who with his wife, Lainie, is her host family.
Sharon Bain, who teaches the English seminar for freshmen, said she has already learned a lesson from the enthusiasm and the backstory of her new student.
"Getrude's example has challenged the way I perceive survivors of personal tragedy - instead of a fragile or bitter victim of circumstance," she said, "she is a gracious, reflective, and confident young woman who is really finding her place at Bryn Mawr."
Indeed, Makurumidze talks of the school as a cradle, the same word she uses to describe her late mother, a nurse.
"I wasn't a spoiled kid, but I could get what I wanted just by asking," she said of her mother.
Her father taught at a rural mission school and often was not around. When Makurumidze was 8, her mother became pregnant, then very ill.
Her mother gave birth to a girl who lived for only a week. "I never set my eyes on her," Makurumidze recalled, "and I never attended the funeral." One month later, her mother was dead. Her father died two months after that.
No one mentioned AIDS, she recalled, because the disease was shrouded in stigma. Only years later did she learn that her dad had contracted AIDS from other women and had infected her mom.
When told her story was tragic, Makurumidze smiled, then laughed. "It gets worse," she said.
The money from selling the family's three-bedroom house, which would have paid for Makurumidze's schooling, vanished during a decade of economic turmoil in Zimbabwe. She was beginning to adjust to a new life with her dad's elder sister and her family when the husband died after just a year, so she moved again, this time to a rural mission school with her mother's younger brother and his family.
"It was really wonderful," she recalled. "My aunt was so motherly. She taught me how to be responsible." Makurumidze didn't mind the hard work, helping to bathe and dress her three young girl cousins every morning and to assist with their homework at night.
When her uncle lost his money, she left to live with family friends in the capital of Harare. They adopted her and paid for her to go boarding school.
She was a top student who always tried hard because "of the sacrifices my relatives made to keep me in school," she said, "so I didn't want those efforts to go in vain."
In her spare time, she volunteered in an orphanage for HIV-infected children, where "people bring them gifts, but look at them with scorn. . . . I look at them as little sisters."
Makurumidze found a way to help them through the U.S. Student Achievers Program, run by the U.S. Embassy in Harare. The program picks 32 students out of a pool of up to 1,000 to attend college in America. It helps with applications, pays for the SAT tests, and arranges for visas and airfare to colleges that then pay tuition, room and board, and living expenses.
Makurumidze applied to Haverford College and several others, but was accepted early-decision at Bryn Mawr, which she thought had the best research opportunities.
In just four weeks, she has charmed everyone - from her roommate to the college president.
"I heard a little bit of her story, but I was really unprepared for how vibrant, open, and smiling she was," said Bryn Mawr president Jane McAuliffe. "She's going to do wonderful. She's pretty extraordinary."
Makurumidze's roommate offered to bring her to California over fall break to see a beach for the first time; her mentor, a Bryn Mawr alum and AIDS psychiatrist, invited her to New York at Thanksgiving; and her host family wants her to spend Christmas break with them.
"It's hectic. It's busy . . . but I love it," she said of grappling with the complexities of Calculus II, working in the college's cafe, and learning to swim. She laughed again.
She wasn't so happy when she got a B on a Spanish test and dejectedly told her host family she had failed. "The standards!" explained Wolovitz.
Makurumidze calls her family in Zimbabwe once a week, but won't be able to visit for years, since she can't afford the airfare. But this tenacious teen has already found her next home.
"I'm sure by the end of four years," she said of her surroundings, "it will feel like family."
Contact Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @kmboccella.