Rwanda teaching experience opens student opportunities and lifetime of memories

By Costa Maragos Posted: January 11, 2018 6:00 a.m.

Dr. Douglas Farenick (back row centre) with some of his students at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Centre in Kigali, Rwanda.
Dr. Douglas Farenick (back row centre) with some of his students at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Centre in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo courtesy of Winnie Nakiyingi

Teaching in a different continent has its own set of challenges. But for Dr. Douglas Farenick, the applause he received at the end of each class took some getting used to. It was one of many pleasant surprises Farenick experienced at a recent teaching assignment in Kigali, Rwanda.

Farenick, Dean of the Faculty of Science, took time off his busy duties at the U of R to teach advanced mathematics at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). It’s one of six such centres of excellence in Africa bringing together graduate students from across the continent as part of the AIMS “Next Einstein Initiative” of which the U of R is a partner.

The University is committed to sending faculty members and graduate students to these centres for short-term teaching assignments.   

Farenick taught 45 graduate students from 14 countries in Africa. We spoke with him about his experience.

Tell us a little more about what this experience in Rwanda was like for you?

Something that I wanted to do for probably 15 years was to go to Africa to teach a graduate course in mathematics. But I never had a way to do it.  So these centres of graduate schools provided a good vehicle for that. I stayed at the AIMS centre at Kigali with the students. I stayed in the same building with them. I ate all my meals with them. I socialized with them. So I got to know them extremely well.  They worked very, very hard.

Irene John, from Kenya, was one of 45 students in Farenick's class.

What was it like teaching students from different countries and varied backgrounds?

Their backgrounds are varied. There are students in physics, computer science, statistics, financial mathematics and pure mathematics - which is what I was teaching. It was a wide cross section.

The depth of knowledge was highly variable so I had to adapt my teaching somewhat. But once I figured out what would be effective, they really worked hard and learned. They were curious and you couldn‘t go anywhere without them asking you a question as soon as they saw you.

Student Doryne Kalembe with Dr. Farenick. Kalembe is from Rwanda.

Curious in what way?

As soon as they saw you - when I’d walk into a computer lab - I could count on spending at least 20 minutes talking with students. They’d ask questions. They asked a lot of questions about the course I was teaching.

You must have felt a connection with the class.

I did. I also did something that went beyond what I was required. I gave a seminar on how to apply to a graduate school in Canada. I gave them information on how to apply for scholarships and how to prepare an application. I met, one on one, with many students to review their CVs. I edited them. So I spent a lot of time with the students in that regard.

Many of them just don’t have the contacts outside of Africa. They don’t have anyone to advise them on what they need to do to succeed in going abroad. There was a great interest in that. I found it very rewarding.

Student Emad Elmahdi from Sudan.

How was it rewarding?

I felt very committed to teaching and teaching well.  When I started, I thought that by the questions asked by some of the students, they would not learn anything. But they worked so hard. They studied the lecture notes. They worked on additional problems to master their material. And then I could see that they were learning.

I recall one fellow who became very fond of me and gave me a gift when I left. When I first met him, I thought he would not pass the course. However, I soon observed that he would be leading one of the tutorials. Within a week and a half he was one of the leaders in the course.

What was that like being back in class?

It felt great because I really like teaching a lot. I like being in contact with students. But it’s also very different from Canada. When I’d say “good morning,” the whole class responded “good morning.” And when I’d finish my lecture, I received applause.

Well you don’t get that here.

It’s rare. The students are very respectful there.

The AIMS-Rwanda Centre is located two kilometres from Kigali
International Airport.

How do you feel about the value of the AIMS program now that you have experienced it?  

In terms of the mission of our university and being a part of the larger community - a global community - I think it has tremendous value. Some of the 45 students have written to me and said that for them it was a life-changing experience.

I was at just one of the AIMS centres. There are six of them on the continent. Cumulatively it will have a substantial impact. We are changing people - one person at a time. We’re influencing them positively.

Some of the students told me, for example, that their goal is to teach in their home country and that just by attending my class they learned a lot about how to teach mathematics. It’s fair to say the style of teaching that I do or we do in Regina and North America differ from most African countries. So I think it has tremendous value.

“I did not expect to have such close relationships with everybody that
I met there. That was really gratifying.” – Douglas Farenick 

This experience has had a tremendous impact on you professionally. What about personally?

On a personal level, well, I am from Regina. I work in Regina. I know we live in a global world. I have been out and about in the world. But what really surprised me was just how I could go to a place I’ve never been. A continent I’ve never been to. Spend time with 45 students I’ve never met before. With two other instructors and staff there was probably 60 people. I even got to know the security guards very well. And just to find out that they like me and that they accept me.

You begin talking to people one on one and you come to an understanding we are all the same. We are all brothers and sisters. I didn’t expect that. I did not expect to have such close relationships with everybody that I met there. That was really gratifying. I was glad it was that way, but I did not expect that. I found that quite surprising.

What advice do you have for others thinking of taking part in the AIMS program?

I am hopeful that the U of R will have a person going every year. But it has to be someone who is committed to it; is fully invested in it and understands there’s a lot involved in teaching that goes beyond the classroom. And then, understanding that you will have a diverse group of students from different countries.

Dr. Douglas Farenick is Dean of the Faculty of Science.