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New William & Mary Program in Rwanda Asks Students to Look Inward

  • College students dance with children in an outdoor location
    Educational experience:  Students were able to get out of their comfort zones and fully immerse themselves in a different culture as they learned a new dance.  Courtesy photo
  • People stand in the countryside with mountains visible in the background
    Educational experience:  Students experienced the country and culture of Rwanda with local community leaders.  Courtesy photo
  • aegis_trust_dance_photoset.jpg
     Dr. Gutierrez is taught a traditional Rwandan dance by one of the children in the orphanage.  Photo courtesy of Aegis Trust
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by Paulina Farley-Kuzmina '20

Empathy and forgiveness are simple concepts, but are much harder to apply in practice. A new William & Mary sponsored summer study abroad program in Kigali, Rwanda focuses on the process of forgiveness and community building in the context of the Rwandan genocide, where around one million people (a tenth of the population) were massacred. For three weeks this past May, a mix of Ph.D, masters, and undergraduate students traveled to the capital of Rwanda where they spent time visiting memorial sites and talking to both survivors and perpetrators of the genocide.

This small group of twelve students from diverse backgrounds came together to learn first-hand from genocide survivors about what it means to overcome tragedy and move toward reconciliation and forgiveness in the face of crimes against humanity. Although there were academic components like classes and readings involved, the purpose of this program was to undergo a transformative experience by looking inward.

“My definitions of hope and forgiveness have changed. Before I thought forgiveness was someone apologizing and then both moving on from it, but looking at the reconciliation villages and the whole community that had to reconcile with one another I learned that forgiveness is a two-party journey where both sides have to come together to communicate,” said undergraduate policy and data science major Morgan Tompkins. Tompkins has studied international development abroad in Guatemala from an economic perspective through the Global Research Institute, but participated in this program to explore social development with a more qualitative approach.

Headed by Dean of the School of Education Spencer Niles and Assistant Professor Daniel Gutierrez in the Counselor Education program at the School of Education, students in the program completed the intensive program in conjunction with partner institution Aegis Trust, an NGO from the United Kingdom based in Rwanda with the goal of preventing genocide, crimes against humanity, and mass atrocities worldwide.

The idea for this study abroad experience came into fruition after Niles went to Rwanda in October of 2017 to to give a keynote speech at a conference that brought together students, ministers of education, university administrators and teachers. There he was introduced to members from Aegis Trust, and together they began developing the program.

“A lot of the trip was designed around the idea of soul searching. We didn’t want to give you a ton of material. You can Wikipedia or watch one of the millions of documentaries on the Rwandan genocide,” said Gutierrez. “We want a transformation. We want people to go into this and have an experience and learn outside of the classroom.”

Niles and Gutierrez flew to Rwanda in November of 2018 for their preliminary visit where they designed the course, program structure, and schedule. With only a few months for a turnaround to finalize logistical details such as tuition cost, credits, and enrollment caps, the program surpassed expectations for both the students and faculty involved. Aegis Trust provided William &  Mary with meals, guides, the basics for the peace and education curriculum, and helped with lodging accommodations. Niles and Gutierrez supplemented the Aegis Trust peace and education course with their own readings, material, and assignments.

This program in Rwanda is unique for a number of reasons. It is one of three William & Mary programs in sub-Saharan Africa (the others being in Cape Town and Mauritius), it offers an opportunity for students of all higher education levels to study abroad together and all receive credit, but also because the program courses are based out of the School of Education.

“Having the balance between undergraduates and graduates gave the undergraduates a chance to talk to graduate students and see what path they are on and open their eyes to what the potential choices are for graduate school or careers,” said Marina Knapp, special programs advisor at the Reves Center. “It also gave the graduate students a chance to step up and take on a leadership and mentoring role.”

The group arrived in Rwanda during the 25th anniversary of commemoration of the 100-day genocide, making their time spent there especially meaningful. For those three weeks students had a packed schedule; they visited museums, memorial sites, killing sites, resting places, reconciliation villages, universities, and parliament. They also had opportunities to explore the surrounding wildlife, for example going on a safari and taking a boat ride on Lake Kivu. There was also a volunteer component to the program: the group passed out food at a hospital as well as helped build a road during “Umuganda,” a day once a month where everyone in each community helps or cleans up in some way.

Due to the very horrific nature of genocide and its aftermath, both students and faculty were confronted with incredibly tough topics throughout the program. However, Niles and Gutierrez are both professional counselors and were able to create a safe space for students, as well as any support needed before, during, and after site visits or meetings with survivors. This support came in many forms, for example time to decompress after site visits, small group conversations, and journaling. Students were also encouraged to speak to either faculty member one-on-one.

“When you see somebody taking in an experience and letting it change them, it changes you somehow,” said Stephanie Dorais, a Ph.D candidate in counselor education. “It’s a continuum of experiences.” As a result of the program, she plans on shifting her focus slightly from therapy techniques for trauma recovery more toward relationship and community building. 

From their time in Rwanda and how it contributes to their fields, Niles and Gutierrez have just been approved to co-direct a center for research and intervention called THRIVE (Transformation, Hope, Resilience, Interculturalism Virtues, Education) to generate research about the process of thriving.  

“We’re interested in how people who come from very challenging circumstances are able to thrive. What are the mechanisms that are a part of that process that help them have that level of resilience?

The goal is to identify patterns that exist across situations and individuals who are thriving despite the experiences they’ve had and then where does that lead us to in terms of counseling interventions and education interventions,” Niles said.

Despite the challenging subject of this study abroad experience, high demand has also already ensured that it will be offered again this upcoming summer. Niles and Gutierrez received many competitive applications to fill few available slots for the program’s first cycle and predict the same for the next one. Although the details are not finalized, they anticipate minor changes to the curriculum and itinerary, a shorter duration in Rwanda, and also more time spent upfront on foundational work before departure, as well as a follow up component. 

“Transformation is not only intellectual. Our students are very comfortable with intellectuality, but a truer transformation needs to go beyond that,” Dean Niles said. “It needs to involve not just the head, but the heart.”