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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, June 13, 2024

Students emerge with new perspectives after immersive Tufts With Rwanda Fellowship

Participants in the Tufts With Rwanda Fellowship are pictured.

Hidden in the spring semester course selections is an Experimental College class called “Tufts With Rwanda Fellowship.” However, it is much more than the average three-hour ExCollege class. 

The Tufts With Rwanda Fellowship is an opportunity for undergraduates subsidized by Tufts Hillel and the Cummings Program for Holocaust and Genocide Education. Fellowship participants learn about the Rwandan genocide in the ExCollege class, and then travel to Rwanda for 10 days to briefly immerse themselves in the material they spent the previous months discussing and to visit the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village where they connect with the village’s students. In the semester following the trip, the fellowship brings back their learnings and experiences and shares it with the Tufts community.

About an hour and a half outside the capital city of Kigali, the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village started as a high school for orphans of the Rwandan genocide, a result of escalated conflict between Rwanda’s Hutu and Tutsi minority ethnic groups in 1994. Dismayed by Rwanda’s 1.2 million orphans at the time, and invigorated by the Jewish philosophy of ‘Tikkun Olam,’ which means ‘to repair the world,’ Anne Heyman, the wife of Tufts alumnus, Seth Merrin, founded the Youth Village in 2008. She endeavored to model it after similar residential communities that aided orphans of the Holocaust.

Bella Preneta, a senior majoring in international relations and a co-coordinator for the 2022 Tufts With Rwanda Fellowship described how the co-coordinators structured the 2022 fellowship. 

“Typically, we recruit the fellows in the fall and then preceding the spring semester, there’s an ExCollege class that meets once a week for two and a half hours. It’s typically a 6:30 [p.m.] to 9 [p.m.] class. And during the class, we have different speakers come in every week,” Preneta said.

Each year, the ExCollege class looks slightly different from the year before.

“Every week, [we had] a discussion with a … highly trained person with knowledge about the Rwandan genocide and Rwanda in general. So we talked to a professor of ethnic studies or actual Rwandans who are now doing amazing NGO and nonprofit and community organizing work. During the semester, we also read parts of a book,” Saffiyah Coker, a junior double-majoring in international relations and economics and a 2022 Tufts with Rwanda fellow, said.

Aside from providing fellows with necessary background information to travel to Rwanda, the ExCollege class and the trip search for answers to questions regarding tourism in a country recently distressed by mass violence. 

“One of the main goals of the ExCollege class was for us as individuals in the class to think of how we wanted to travel intentionally. … We wanted to have very intentional conversations about what ecotourism looks like and why we’re going to Rwanda,” Coker said. “It’s not just the vacation; we’re going there to learn about very serious topics, and also how we wanted to interact with the space while we were there, because you’re only visiting one place for 10 days, so you won’t become an expert by any means.”

Once in Rwanda, fellows spent time at ASYV and toured various genocide memorials. 2022 fellow Claire Brennan, a senior studying English and political science, noted that while they were constantly partaking in meaningful discussions on the trip, the interactions with the students at ASYV were not about the genocide but simply teenagers getting to know one another.

“When we were with the students, we were talking about math homework and the soccer game later that day and stuff, so we weren’t really getting into the deeper stuff with them. But we had opportunities to have speaker series with older staff members, and that’s when those topics would come up a little bit more,” Brennan said.

Esma Abib, a junior studying international relations, and the other co-coordinator of the 2022 Tufts with Rwanda Fellowship also described the interactions with the ASYV students as more friendly and less rigid than the ExCollege classroom setting.

“I feel like I didn’t learn that much about the history of the Rwandan Genocide through the conversations I was having. It was just kind of like humanizing all the learning that we’ve done and seeing so many similarities between each other,” Abib said.

However, when it came to having meaningful discussion, Abib noted that she was grateful for the diversity of the Tufts cohort because it brought about more fruitful conversations throughout the Fellowship.

“In previous years, there wasn’t as much diversity in the cohort specifically, and this year … [we had] diversity on our cohort [that impacted] the discussions that we’d have, because so many people would come from so many different backgrounds, whether if it was identity based or even academically,” Abib said.

As children orphaned by the Rwandan genocide grew up, ASYV had to adapt. Preneta explained how it is now also a community for the most vulnerable children in Rwanda.

“Each district [in Rwanda] nominates two or three students. And then they’re voted on by the councils of those regions and Rwanda, and then they get to go to the village and attend for free.” Preneta said.

The fellows additionally got to experience much of Rwanda outside of ASYV. 

“We spent a little bit of time in Kigali, which is the capital city and did touristy stuff there. We saw some markets and some cool buildings. … One day, we went on a safari, which was awesome … and then we also went to three nonprofits. … One was a women's shelter,” Brennan said.

While they were not at ASYV, fellows toured several genocide memorials, museums and nonprofits in Rwanda. Brennan explained that immersing oneself in such grim images was often a difficult task. She noted one memorial in particular that was difficult and uncomfortable to view.

“It was a school where people ran to as a safe house and then they were killed there. … How they choose to present [this memorial] is that they preserved a lot of the bodies, and they keep them in classrooms. And then there’s also a mass grave … that was by far the hardest day for me, at least. I think it was for most people,” Brennan said. “There was a lot of crying. It’s just nauseating to see that laid out in front of you. … The tour guide who works at the memorial, he was guiding us around and he was seeing all of us get really visibly upset and his job is to go around and comfort people and say, ‘I know this is really hard, but you need to keep going because it's really important to see this and that’s why we have it displayed this way.’”

The third element to the Tufts With Rwanda Fellowship is that the fellows carry on what they learned in the ExCollege class and on the 10-day trip to the Tufts community in the fall semester. 

“[The fellows have] done something different every year. One year they had a 5K, where they raised money for the village. One year they did an art show where they showed pictures. This year, we’re doing a speaker series. So our first one is actually … Oct. 12. So, Wednesday, Oct. 12, at 7:30 [p.m.]. And we’re having an ASYV alum and Tufts graduate come speak to us, and it will be a roundtable discussion,” Preneta said.

Although the fellowship is technically only one year long, fellows returned from the trip with new perspectives, experiences and unanswered questions that extend far beyond the timeline and scope of the fellowship. 

“When you fly into Rwanda, you fly into Kigali, which is a really modern city. … It could be any midsize city in the United States. And then you get right outside the city and you’re in these villages that do have no running water, and 80% of the population of Rwanda lives in a super rural community [and] that is what I think a lot of people do think about when they think about Africa. So, I think it was really interesting to kind of see that nobody really gets it right unless you’ve been there. And just the fact that those perceptions exist in the first place is really harmful stereotyping,” Brennan said.

“When I started interacting with people of Rwanda, I fell in love with Rwanda. … They have a phrase, which is ‘Ubumuntu,’ and it means ‘greatness of heart.’ … I felt like everyone in Rwanda really held that to the utmost importance in their lives. And I felt like everyone lived by that phrase, and everyone just wanted to do better … and be their best selves,” Preneta said.

“I think that more people should apply because it’s truly a once in a life opportunity. You’re going to Rwanda, such a beautiful country, for 10 days to learn and be with a cohort of such intentional people,” Coker said.