Student trip to Rwanda is a life-altering experience

By Costa Maragos Posted: August 15, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Social work student Paige Breland, speaking to children at SOS International Children’s Village, an organization that helps orphaned, abandoned and destitute children.
Social work student Paige Breland, speaking to children at SOS International Children’s Village, an organization that helps orphaned, abandoned and destitute children. Photo courtesy of Nick Nshuti

A group from the Faculty of Social work embarked on what was to become a life changing journey. The group of eight travelled in May to the University of Technology and Arts (UTAB) of Byumba in Rwanda in east-central Africa.
The team included five social work students, who were doing their practicum, along with Dr. Donalda Halabuza and Dr. Randy Johner, assistant professors in the Faculty of Social Work.

The group was assisted by Pauline Nzaramba, a U of R bachelor of social work graduate and of Rwandan ethnicity. She speaks Kinyarwanda (Rwandan language), which was helpful given the language challenges.

Rwanda Class Scene
The practicum included classes with local students and faculty.

The students took part in social work classes and discussions with students and faculty; helped build a house for an 80-year-old genocide survivor; listened to community self-help support groups working towards economic sustainability and those that supported AIDS and HIV victims and their children; developed nurturing relationships with children at the SOS International Children’s Village; purchased food and other essentials for the poorest patients in Byumba Hospital; and listened to the story of a 31-year-old-survivor of genocide, who was nine years old  during the conflicts in Rwanda.

Halabuza and Johner were guest lecturers in social work classes and led a faculty-wide seminar on developing on-line classes.

We asked some of the participants to share their thoughts about their experiences.

Paige Breland – Student

“I took away so much from this trip. I definitely took away a feeling of privilege. I have found that I've been much happier with my life since our return, and that I do not get as stressed as easily, nor do I complain as much. I don't consciously think about privilege, but I notice it as it comes up. This also makes me want to help more and do more for people who have a harder life.   
The most inspiring thing was seeing how happy everyone appeared to be in Byumba, even though many of us Canadians could not live in those situations. It really put everything into perspective.  

Rwanda welcome
The U of R team assisted in the building of a home for an 80 year old woman who is a widow and genocide survivor.

Shelley Bunnie – Student

This practicum benefited me in numerous ways. It allowed me to grow as an individual, to recognize my strengths and opportunities for improvement, and to apply my social work education. For the first time I was truly aware of the privilege I am afforded. It has allowed me to refocus on what is truly important in life and inspired me to make a difference in the lives of others.
Jessi Teichroeb - Student

I was able to get a better grasp and understanding of applying different cultural aspects and ideas to social work. It was refreshing to gain different perspectives and ideas- such as the focus on group work. The trip also really helped me to further develop my critical thinking since we were constantly challenged to think critically about what we’re experiencing and then apply it to social work. I really got a better understanding of the social work field and how to apply theories and ideologies learned in the classroom to the field.

Randy Johner – Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Social Work

Rwanda House Scene
The U of R team was greeted with a cultural welcoming event hosted by students at the University of Technology and Arts of Byumba.

One can read and one can teach students about the struggles (and successes) of living (socially, economically, politically) in a developing nation but until one has the opportunity to witness some of the realities of a developing nation, only is one then able to fully realize the extent of one's privilege.  

The social work Rwandan practicum was life altering in many ways. This was a very demanding practicum in that it required great courage from the students to travel such a distance to a rural area of Rwanda, a country deeply immersed in its own Truth and Reconciliation, 22 years post-genocide.

The work was exhilarating but exhausting on all levels-emotionally, physically, cognitively and spiritually - and sometimes scary for students given the horrific stories of genocide, and the reality that most of the social work students at UTAB came into social work because of the impact of the genocide on them, and that Byumba was one of the most impacted communities during the genocide.

The visit at the hospital was a numbing experience for many of us. Many patients, appearing like ghosts- so terribly thin-their bodies scarcely making an impression under the thread bare blankets.

Rwanda Group Photo
(Front row l-r)  
Dr. Donalda Halabuza and Dr. Randy Johner, assistant professors in the Faculty of Social Work. (Back row l-r) Marie-Louise (Byumba resident), Madison Maher, Paige Breland, Jessi Teichroeb, Jenna Corcoran and Shelley Bunnie.

Dr. Donalda Halabuza – Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Social Work

In social work we speak of cultural acceptance, awareness, and strengths, however these qualities are not always evident in our society or work places. In this practicum the students and staff were entirely immersed in a new and rich culture whereby we became aware of how different messages are interpreted based on culture and social status. This was evident for both the students and the faculty members. We were in a very collective society whereby personal wellbeing is determined by the community wellbeing.

We witnessed extreme poverty as it is experienced by many people in the world.

Clearly, having the students participate in building a mud house for an old widow (80 years of age) who is a genocide survivor was moving and important. Seeing how health services are delivered was also important whereby there are often not enough funds to feed patients or obtain supplies.

Students and faculty were well prepared and did much research prior to leaving. This was a benefit. However, nothing can really prepare a person for the Genocide memorial in Kigali.

The generous spirit of the people we met was very humbling. All of us, students and faculty became aware of privilege on many different levels, starting with the colour of our skin - we are all white; being from a developed country, etc. Social work students in Byumba were excited to meet with and work with our students, despite language barriers, the interest in learning from peers was huge.
I was moved by the spirit of the people who were generous, proud of their culture and so very, very, hard working to improve conditions in the developing Rwanda.  
The practicum in Rwanda was the inaugural launching of the International Practicum Agreement, between the Faculty of Social Work and the University of Technology and Arts (UTAB). Plans are in the works for the U of R to host a few faculty and students from UTAB in two years.