Rwanda Bound

As a graduate student, Kanton Reynolds, ISE Director of Undergraduate Programs, realized the transformative power of international education and wanted to provide the same opportunities to ISE students. This summer, he led a group of students that included three ISE students, Catherine Reckard, Daniela Santibanez and Gracie Suggs, to Rwanda to complete community service projects. This trip allowed them to put their industrial engineering skills to work in the classroom and the community.

Upon arrival to Rwanda, the team joined up with five local college students from a partner institution, the Institute for Natural Sciences (INES). These students helped with translation while the team was in the classrooms. They also spent much of the free time showing them their favorite activities and taking them to their homes. Both groups collaborated on two critical projects—one involved using virtual reality to refine their curricular activities, and the other was the Umuganda Community Service Project. This assignment was a community service tradition in Rwanda. One household member must sign up to help with a specific community service activity on the last Saturday of each month.

ISE student Daniela Santibanez working with several students

The group repaired and cleaned the area where an illegal mining operation had devastated the landscape in Musansze. “The best part of that experience was seeing the thousands of people who came to help with this project,” recalled Santibanez. “This was the first time I had seen such a large group of people coming together with a similar goal and passion for the same thing.” Reynolds believed this experience was impactful beyond what they could learn in a strictly classroom environment.

Catherine Reckard

In the fall of 2022, Catherine Reckard took Reynolds’s Diversity and Social Justice in Engineering Education class, where Reynolds spoke about the trip regularly. “I had always wanted to study abroad while in college,” shared Reckard. “So this is the perfect opportunity to study abroad while still being able to complete my summer internship.”

The group of students washing vegetables and preparing a meal

Having known little about Rwanda before she arrived, Reckard learned much about the history and culture of the country. “I also learned the importance of culturally and socially relevant educational practices and tools for prioritizing that in lesson planning,” she recalled. At the local high school, Reckard performed research related to her previous virtual reality-based work with ISE associate professor Karen Chen. “I was able to apply the skills I gained from my REU experience, in addition to teaching the students problem-solving and critical thinking skills.” For many local students, this was the first time they had experienced virtual reality. “It was fun to hear their remarks of excitement and fascination,” Reckard said.

Reflecting on her experience, she appreciated her relationships with the local university students and participated in many aspects of Rwandan culture. “I loved being able to walk to most places and being surrounded by such a beautiful landscape,” she confided.

Daniela Santibanez

Going into her senior year, Daniela Santibanez knew the engineering education aspect of the study abroad program was an opportunity she wanted to seize. “As a first-generation student, I’ve always been passionate about exposing and encouraging others to STEM opportunities,” confided Santibanez. “So this is a great way to aid in that goal.”

On the surface, the engineering education project didn’t seem to be ISE-related to Santibanez. However, she quickly discovered that education is its own system, and ISEs identify straightforward ways to improve systems. So, she collected feedback from students, teachers and her professors to ensure changes to the lesson plans targeted the right goals. “Essentially, continuously making small improvements for an overall better system,” She said. “A core ISE method.”

Several students and faculty of the school in Rwanda

Santibanez was pleasantly surprised by the level of understanding that the students already had for core STEM topics. However, they struggled to apply these subjects to real-world situations or experiments because they lacked resources. “In teaching our classes, the most impactful aspect was seeing the interest and excitement from students after they realized they had achieved the goals of their projects,” shared Santibanez. One goal she achieved was to distill complicated concepts into meaningful interactions for the students. To do so, she had to learn how to collaborate across disciplines to achieve a common goal.

Gracie Suggs

Knowing that she always wanted to study abroad, Gracie Suggs chose the Rwanda trip because she loved visiting local schools and interacting with the students and teachers. “I felt like this was a different experience than typical study abroad trips,” recalled Suggs. “I also wanted to learn about a culture I knew little about before.”

Although serving the local community was the trip’s goal, the friendships she made had the most significant impact. “I developed such a strong relationship with the INES students, and I was able to learn so much about culture and life in Rwanda,” confided Suggs. “I still keep in contact with many of these students now.”

A mural of two colorful birds painted on a yellow wall

She not only formed strong bonds with her fellow students but also with the students and teachers at the boarding schools. “This was an amazing experience because I spent time interacting with the students and teaching them about a subject I was passionate about,” she said. The team talked with the students about educational opportunities in the United States, such as various scholarships they could obtain and ways they could come to NC State. “We hoped to encourage some of these students to try for scholarships to NC State so they can use that education to make a positive impact in Rwanda.”

Embracing Adaptability

An excellent trait to possess when traveling abroad is adaptability. This quality is also fantastic for any successful engineer. “I am continually amazed by the ability of our students to adapt to the prevailing circumstances once they immerse themselves in the experience,” shared Reynolds. “They realized they don’t have to become engineering educators to get something tangible out of the course that can assist them in other areas of their future careers.”

If this sounds like a student adventure you want to experience and collect a few course credits along the way, Reynolds is already planning a return trip next summer. “We will be teaching a second course (Ethics for Engineering Education) on this study abroad program for a total of six credit hours, he said. “ISE students can continue to use the Field Experiences course as a technical elective but will also be able to satisfy their Ethics requirement with the newly added course.” 

The program hopes to partner with the University of Rwanda. It has the support of three NC State alums who will be Fulbright Scholars in Rwanda this coming year, including Meriem Laroussi, who just finished the ISE Master’s Program and was co-lead for the Rwanda ASB in March and Amy Isvik, a Ph.D. student in Computer Science who was a part of the inaugural Study Abroad Program to Rwanda last summer.