Rwanda Class Is a Lesson in Giving

Students get a chance to make a real-life impact on a troubled nation

What if you had $5,000 to give away in order to help people in a foreign country desperate for aid? How would you decide who gets it?

For students in the Jan Term class, "New Histories: Remaking & Reconciling Rwanda," that wasn't a hypothetical question. At the beginning of the class, they were given $5,000 and told that it was up to them to learn about this troubled nation, still recovering from a 1994 genocide that took more than 800,000 lives, and decide where to allocate the grant so it would do the most good.

The money came from the Kundebana Foundation, whose founder, Jim Losi, co-taught the class with Professor Jennifer Pigza. The foundation, which operates two orphanages and contributes to other programs that support orphans, invited the Saint Mary's students to sit on its board of directors for the month of January so they could allocate the donation in the most beneficial way.

The class used a "theory-to-practice" learning method to help students understand the rebuilding process in Rwanda. "It's about understanding Rwanda, the history of the genocide and the reconciliation process" said Pigza, as well as the way the Rwandan people are developing and rebuilding their shattered culture. The topic seemed perfect for the Jan Term 2011 theme of "New Histories: Reliving, Rethinking, Remaking."

Making Deeper Connections

Freshman Amanda Collins said she had always been interested in Rwanda and Africa, and since freshmen don't take travel courses for their first Jan Term, this was "a chance to be in Rwanda and still be in California." As the class went on, though, Collins discovered a deeper connection with the material.

"Being able to learn about a different country and what other people have been through … your problems in the U.S. seem so minuscule," she said. "I am grateful for the things I have because people in Rwanda don't have that. It makes you want to help and get your hands dirty to work for a greater cause."

In order to make an informed decision on how to allocate the grant money, students learned about the Rwandan genocide, the reconciliation process that is beginning to heal deep emotional wounds, and the country's rebuilding progress through readings, films and newscasts.

"We challenge each other on how to make the donation as meaningful and powerful as we can," Losi said. "It's a move from an intellectual example to a real, practical example. The class has to decide which constituency to serve, what problem to address, under what conditions to give the funds, to which organization, with what expected results, over how much time."

CARE Official Comes to Class

The class also had the benefit of a very high-profile guest speaker: Steve Hollingsworth, the chief operating officer of CARE. Hollingsworth, who was an aid worker in South Africa, South America and India before taking on a leadership role in the worldwide aid organization, advised them to do what his organization does, though admittedly on a much different scale: Do a "gap analysis" to figure out how much time, money and human resources are needed to achieve the desired result, and then formulate a strategic plan.

"Rwanda is one of the most rapidly expanding economies in the world," he said, "and it's important to make sure the poor are included in that expansion."

After a month of learning and deliberation, the students voted on how to allocate the money. The $5,000 was divided among three nonprofit organizations, with 50 percent going to Rwandans4Water to provide clean water, 20 percent to the Rwaza Orphanage in Kigali to buy computers and 30 percent to Tools for Schools to provide books and sports equipment for schoolchildren.

After the vote, Pigza said, "The entire course experience was fantastic, and today, the decision-making went very well."

The Work Goes On

While Jan Term has ended, the work continues. Pigza and Losi are now trying to raise money through other funders, both nonprofit and corporate, to match the initial $5,000. The class plans a mid-semester reunion for a formal update on the progress of their grant.

Freshman Natalie Livingston said the course taught her about much more than Rwanda's recent history. "The most significant thing that I am taking away from this class," she said, "is that there is no excuse to sit back and say, ‘There is nothing that I can do to help these people in developing countries who are suffering.' We all can do something."

Caitlin Graveson '11

Photo of Steve Hollingworth by Gabrielle Diaz '11

View photos of children from the Rwaza Orphanage, one of the grant recipients, and learn about the orphanage.

Learn about Rwandans 4 Water

Learn about Tools for Schools