Better known for its excellence in life sciences and agriculture, Utah State University (USU) might be your last guess for its involvement in a global engagement narrative. But in the summer of 2021, a group of USU students found themselves in the humid city of Kigali, Rwanda, chatting with students of Kepler University. So how did they get there exactly?
Since earning her Ph.D. degree focused on international conflict, Dr. Shannon Peterson has been a passionate advocate for understanding political conflict and the international community's role in intervention, non-intervention, and mitigation. As a USU professor, she shares that passion with politically-minded students in her international relations, trade, and politics classes. She currently serves as the Director of the USU Institute of Government and Politics, facilitating local and international political experiences for students. In 2019, Dr. Peterson worked with Justin Powell of Youthlinc to potentially establish a student study abroad program in Vietnam. However, after Mr. Powell was introduced to Pascal Mutembezeri through the Utah Global Diplomacy’s International Visitor Leadership Program, he realized the connection between Pascal and USU complimented Dr. Peterson’s efforts to teach her students about real-life conflict mitigation.
She agreed to the project, sharing, “It is one thing to study these things, [it is] another to meet people on the ground who participated and are healing from the conflict.” So, in collaboration with Youthlinc and Pascal Mutembezeri, USU planned and held their first Rwanda study abroad in 2021.
For many USU students, Rwanda was their first exposure to the diversity of the African continent. Mr. Mutembezeri connected the group with NGOs, government agencies, and academic facilities. These connections provided diverse perspectives not only on the impact of the horrific genocide the country experienced in the 90s but also on Rwanda's unique approaches toward peace and reconciliation. Furthermore, USU students connected with and formed long-lasting friendships with local Kepler University students.
Camryn Rigby, a USU student, tells of her experience making friends with Aimee, a Kepler University student from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“From boys to college rejection, we were able to find commonalities in one another, and therefore a connection. Despite our differing backgrounds and realities, our worldviews were mingling with the intake of different outlooks on life. And, although our answers differed in many ways, we were able to come back to one common theme: humanity. I saw Aimee as my equal not only in age, but also in the value that comes from simply being human. I am not better than her, and she is no better than me… Having the opportunity to meet and connect with people that are ‘seemingly’ so different than myself made me realize that, when given the chance to interact and communicate across cultural borders, genuine connections prevail. To me, that is both a beautiful and remarkable thing.”
Other students explained that the experience of meeting and interacting with their Rwandan peers helped them understand the diversity and beauty of the country and how to explore different ways of viewing and interacting with the world.
In addition to the profound impact the trip had on USU students, the university recognized the value international experiences have on their students and are exploring scholarship opportunities to assist in the affordability of these kinds of experiences.
Dr. Peterson specifically noted that this experience would not have been possible without the help of Pascal Mutembezeri. His facilitation and connections to government, academic, and NGO contacts were invaluable to the program's success.
What do Rwanda, Youthlinc, and USU have in common? Citizen Diplomacy - the concept that all individuals have the right, even responsibility, to shape foreign relations, and it’s done one handshake at a time. Citizen Diplomacy plants seeds that take time to grow in extraordinary ways. Little did we know that by welcoming Mr. Pascal Mutembezeri to Utah through the International Visitor Leadership Program and facilitating a meeting with his IVLP group and Youthlinc, a partnership would form that would amplify and impact students and communities locally and globally.
Most importantly, connecting students in Utah with students in Rwanda would break down stereotypes of a homogeneous Africa, helping the students better understand Rwanda's diversity and cultural complexity and create young global citizens.
To read more about USU student experiences, click here.