This May, five Keene State College students studying with Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Therese Seibert, will embark on a unique journey of a lifetime in efforts to understand a post-Genocide culture in Rwanda.
The five KSC students including Alex Habibi, Kelly Christianson, Mark DiIanni, Katie Morrisette and Mariellen Breton will be in Rwanda from May 12 to June 15.
One of the five students, Christianson, is a KSC junior triple majoring in elementary education, sociology and holocaust and genocide studies.
Christianson is also a teacher’s assistant for Seibert and has lead a presentation for a Sociological Topics in Genocide senior seminar course to teach a lesson to the class about perpetrator behavior in Rwanda.
According to Christianson, once the group is in Rwanda, along with four other students from Weber College, they will be attending a two-week long program with the Peace-building Institute held by Never Again Rwanda (NAR), as well as attending a primary school, a boys and girls orphanage and genocide memorials.
NAR is a non-governmental organization that works with genocide survivors and works towards the peace and reconciliation process in Rwanda, according to Habibi, who is double majoring in holocaust and genocide studies and European history.
Habibi said his personal mission in going to Rwanda is to gain some hands-on experience working internationally.
“I’d like to work for the state department as a foreign service officer and this is the type of work that you would be doing over there — working with people in civil society and government sectors,” Habibi said.
“I hope I can learn and understand what happened in Rwanda in 1994 and try to use that knowledge and work towards a more peaceful, safer world,” Habibi added.
KSC senior Morrisette is studying early childhood education and sociology, and said what she hopes to take out of this experience the most is, “learning about how a country comes back from a genocide and the reconciliation process, how they’ve learned to forgive after everything that has happened — that will be really hard hitting,” Morrisette said.
“Part of what we’re doing there is we are taking a class with Never Again Rwanda to talk about the reconciliation process of the genocide. Being an education major, I’m really excited about that process because a part of my job is going to be about socializing our youth,” Morrisette said.
She continued, “I’m really excited about learning how they have learned to forgive and how they work with cultural diversity.”
Another trip member is junior Breton, a KSC sociology major with a minor in criminal justice and substance abuse and addiction.
“I’m going to Rwanda because I really want to be an international social worker or humanitarian aid kind of person — so for me it’s a stepping stone into learning about a culture development and how they’ve adapted through post genocide times,” Breton said.
Christianson said Vice President of Student Affairs, Andy Robinson, has been very enthusiastic and supportive throughout the fundraising process for the trip to Rwanda.
“He [Robinson] gave us one-thousand dollars to put towards our cost and eight-hundred dollars towards medical supplies which we are going to be using to buy a year of health insurance for one hundred people from a village [in Rwanda],” Christianson said. She said the cost is $5,000 per student for the trip.
The group of students also spoke at the Springfield Rotary Club as well as organized a benefit dinner at Spoleto Restaurant in East Longmeadow, Mass. to raise money.
Christianson said they gained over $4,000 in donations through a silent auction of donated items, as well as received a donation of books from Scholastic Press. According to Christianson, the group received “tremendous support from people who donated.”
“We weren’t expecting this amount of support — it’s unbelievable how many people are interested in what we’re doing and in Rwanda and how it’s grown and working through this genocide and rebuilding their country and culture,” Christianson said.
“One man gave us five boxes of books to bring over, and pens and pencils and paper,” she added.
These supplies will be brought to the children at a primary school called Friends of Butare, as well as boys and girls orphanages that the students will be visiting.
According to psychology major DiIanni, Friends of Butare is a school in Rwanda that is taking steps and undergoing construction to make a better place for kids in Rwanda to receive a better education.
The KSC students will “meet the kids and distribute toys and books ourselves,” DiIanni said.
Christianson added that the school began with a mere 200 students and now has about 1,200.
Although DiIanni does not have a holocaust and genocide background like some of the other students, he said he is interested in the psychology aspect.
“I’m really interested in psychology and the psychological construct of hope, and I think that in a country like Rwanda where they have experienced such a trauma, their hope has been destroyed and I want to look at how the process of reconciliation kind of goes hand and hand with hope and how important hope is,” DiIanni said.
DiIanni explained this experience will help him complete research partially based on Anthony Scioli’s theory of hope as a “theoretical background and framework” to help him get into graduate school.
Habibi said he wanted people to know the group’s goal is to learn from the people of Rwanda.
“I think we’ll learn more from the Rwandans than they will learn from us in any way,” he said.
We’re not going over there with a savior complex. We’re all going over there with very open minds and we’ll all come back very different people,” Habibi said.
“As much as we’re able to offer material support in the form of medical supplies or school supplies because we’re coming from a first-world country, I expect to learn just as much from the Rwandan students that we’re working with.” Habibi said.
Habibi continued, “We’re not going over there with a missionary complex — I plan to learn just as much and to absorb from Rwandan culture just as I absorbed a lot culture from South African culture when I studied abroad there, just understanding humanity in a less individualistic way and looking at humanity as a bigger circle and understanding your place and relation to others and as opposed to just being concerned about ‘me me me.’”
In terms of the emotional intensity the students may experience while in Rwanda and dealing with a post-genocide culture, the students agreed how important the support of the group members will be.
Christianson, who also studied abroad in South Africa and worked in an impoverished area said, “Handling that was difficult — I think it will be better because there will be a group of people that we know, being with our friends and a professor that we trust.”
Breton added that her experience visiting Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 will help her in being prepared for Rwanda.
“A lot of people get into a third-world country or a developing country and they’re not used to culture that is in front of them, and by seeing that and it being something I have already experienced, really helped me or will help me with my experience in Rwanda,” Breton said.
Morrisette added, “We’re a really strong group and we’ve gotten along really well.”
According to Christianson, the students will also be participating in group de-briefs after each memorial and after any other intense experiences they will write in journals, as well as keep a blog.
In addition to the few weeks that Habibi, Morissette, Christianson, DiIanni and Breton will be in Rwanda, Christianson will be staying the majority of the summer living with a Rwandan family in Butare and teaching at the school, pursuing her goal of teaching in post-conflict countries.
Christianson spoke for the entire group and said the phenomenal professors and close-knit program at the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies has prepared them for their trip.
To follow the students blog entries during their time in Rwanda, visit http://kscrwanda.blogspot.com/.
Kenzie Travers can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.