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Five Students Seek Understanding in Rwanda

May 7, 2014
At the Spoleto's fundraiser: (l-r) Mark Di Ianni; Katie Morrisette; Alexander Habibi; Mariellen Breton; Deb Boronski, Kelly Christianson; Kelly's dad, Charlie Christianson
At the Spoleto's fundraiser: (l-r) Mark Di Ianni; Katie Morrisette; Alexander Habibi; Mariellen Breton; Deb Boronski, Kelly Christianson; Kelly's dad, Charlie Christianson

Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Therese Seibert is taking five very dedicated and enthusiastic students to Rwanda from May 12–June 15 where they will surely make a difference. That's easy to say, right? But the evidence is strong: When Dr. Seibert first started to organize the trip for her course, Rwanda: Then & Now, several interested students balked when they saw how much it was going to cost them. By the time Kelly Christianson, a junior majoring in elementary education and sociology and Holocaust and genocide studies, expressed interest in the trip, Dr. Seibert was on the verge of scrapping the plan—until Christianson offered to to help recruit students, organize the trip, and raise some of the necessary funds.

If you'd like to know more about the trip, and keep abreast of their progress, check out the blog the group has already started.

A few weeks later, Christianson had five students signed up and they began fundraising, beginning with generous support from Vice-President of Academic Affairs, Andrew Robinson. They'll use most of that money to purchase 100 medical insurance policies for impoverished residents of a rural village. The group then created a formal presentation that they offered to the Springfield (Mass.) Rotary Club and a condensed version at Spoleto's Restaurant in East Longmeadow, with the help of Christianson's father, Charlie Christianson. "They presented a great deal of difficult material to the audience, including Rwanda’s geography, history, genocide, institutions, and post-genocide advancements and challenges, in addition to describing our upcoming trip," Dr. Seibert said. Besides funding for the trip, the students also obtained goods to donate to the Rwandan people, including high-quality surgical-steel instruments and other medical supplies, scholastic books and toys, clothes, and candy for the orphanages they will visit.

The group will tour Rwanda and do service work at a primary school, two orphanages, and a Twa village and participate in a two-week program at the Peace Building Institute, facilitated by an NGO called Never Again Rwanda (NAR) that promotes human rights and conflict resolution with specific programs aimed at supporting young Rwandan entrepreneurs. Holocaust and genocide studies and European history major Alexander Habibi and Christianson are on the agenda to present on perpetrator behavior, drawing from Cohen Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies Dr. James Waller’s book, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing.

The students are very focused on their work and their goals for the trip. "I have learned about the genocide and post-genocide reconciliation efforts, but those facts cannot come to life until one has visited the country, spoken with the people, and experienced the healing process," Christianson noted. "As I am an education student and plan to teach in post-conflict countries after my graduation, Rwanda is a fantastic case study. I will be staying an additional three weeks to volunteer at a public school in Butare (L-Ecole Primaire de Butare) and staying with a Rwandan family during this time."

"The trip will deepen and expand my understanding of humanity because I simply cannot comprehend the hell Rwandans went through in 1994 and the fact that they are doing everything possible to better their country with these memories still fresh is certainly something I hope I can learn from," Habibi explained. "Career wise, I am pursuing options in the field of international relations and development, specifically related to conflict resolution."

"As a future early childhood educator, my main job will be socializing our youth. I am committed to understanding different backgrounds and establishing a culturally sensitive classroom environment," said Katie Morrisette, an early childhood education and sociology major. "My hopes for this trip will be learning how to teach and embrace cultural diversity and how to teach children to respect individual group identity. During our time in Rwanda we are going to be taking a two-week course, sponsored by Never Again Rwanda (NAR) which is a human rights and peace-building organization that resulted in response to the 1994 genocide. The Peace Building Institutes’ focus on social justice, conflict resolution, and reconciliation will support my academic work and career goals towards providing education on tolerance towards diversity."

"I would like to come back with a thorough understanding of Rwandan culture; in particular I am interested in learning about how they have been able to move forward from the traumatic events that happened during the 1994 genocide," said psychology major Mark Di Ianni. "I would like to return with an assessment of the amount of hope that Rwandans have going into the future. I am using a theory developed by professor Anthony Scioli at KSC, which outlines the motives and qualities that are necessary to develop hope within an individual, in order to asses the reconciliation process."

"I am so excited to be given the opportunity to travel to Rwanda and learn about their beautiful culture and see how the country has worked on restoring justice and peace post-genocide," said Mariellen Breton, a sociology major minoring in criminal justice studies and substance abuse and addictions. "It is astonishing that a country can go through so much but still hold hope and happiness in the face of it all—this is a truly remarkable quality, and I would love to know more about how we can bring their efforts of peace and reconciliation to other aspects of my line of work."

Yes, it's likely that this group will make a big difference. "The group is amazing and inspirational; they embody what is best about our college," Dr. Seibert said. "Throughout this past academic year, they have demonstrated a passion for social justice, an intellectual engagement with understanding Rwandan culture, cultural awareness and sensitivity, civic and personal responsibility, and an ability to work together to get the job done. They have unequivocally taken ownership of this study-abroad course."