Author: Vestine Ukwishaka
Akilah Rwanda Class of 2013
This past summer, I spent three weeks in California at the Hansen Summer Institute. Hansen provides a leadership program in international cooperation in which young Americans join students from developing countries and regions of social strife to build common understanding for a more peaceful future. I met students selected from 14 other countries around the world – the U.S., Morocco, Bosnia, Uganda, Russia, Argentina, Uzbekistan, Nepal, Ethiopia, Poland, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Georgia, France. You can imagine how proud I was to represent Rwanda.
It was my first time flying and everything was confusing and new! I had to pay close attention to signs and directions and gain the confidence to ask for help when I was lost. I matured a lot as I sought solutions for myself and found my way around a new and very different country.
After two days of travel, I was both sleepy and excited. I didn’t know what to expect. When I read about Hansen, I felt intimidated. I knew I would meet new people and was certain I would make some friends, but I thought everyone would know so much more than someone like me. I found I was a bit afraid that I would not be able to follow along and hold my own.
I was in for a surprise when the sessions started! I thought that I would be learning completely new strategies in leadership and would find it hard to keep up. But some of the courses we took at Hansen were actually part of our curriculum at Akilah. This was very unexpected because I thought our teaching was maybe simpler or different somehow, since we are very far down in Africa in a really small country that very few people even know about. Instead, I was very happy to see that even the way in which they taught us was much like what I’m used to at Akilah, where we work in groups and are always given handouts for the classes we are taking.
When I realized that the things I would be doing and the way in which I would be learning were like at our school, I became much more relaxed. That really helped me feel more confident participating in sessions and offering my input. I found a new appreciation for the Akilah model, which most of us just take as normal. After those three weeks, I changed a great deal. If you talked with me before this program and spoke to me today, you could actually see the difference. My English has improved, I increased my communication skills, I’m better at teamwork and dealing with a diversity of backgrounds, and feel more confident in my public speaking.
This year’s program was focused on change through social entrepreneurship, and I was very lucky to have been selected, because Akilah recently started teaching classes in entrepreneurship. While we were there we had a two-day entrepreneurship workshop and had to plan and present our ideas for a social business. At Akilah, we always do presentations and this was my opportunity to put everything I learned into practice.
While researching opportunities for social business, I found out that diabetes is on the rise in Rwanda, and this is because we consume a lot of refined sugars in our diet. I developed a proposal for a baking company that substitutes white flour with flour made from sweet potatoes. They are just as sweet but contain natural sugars. I knew there was a market opportunity, because Rwandans love baked goods but not everyone can eat the sugary ones. My business proposal addressed both a market demand and a growing health concern in my country.
All my effort and hard work paid off when my business proposal won FIRST PLACE and was awarded $3,000! I was so happy and felt very honored and grateful that I did not let my school or my country down. I realized that doing things like taking initiative, projecting confidence, socializing, and having a positive attitude are behaviors that now come easily to me because these are things Akilah always emphasizes. You’ll find these characteristics easily in Akilah students.
But my stay in California was not all studying and making business plans. I had very many wonderful experiences and made friends that I cannot say I ever thought I’d have. Everyone was so supportive and helpful and willing to encourage each other to succeed. They were very free in sharing what they knew. There was such kindness, even up to the last day of my stay with them, when they gave me a wonderful parting gift as I leaving. Every time I look at it, I remember the great friends I met at Hansen and keep them warm deep in my heart. I miss them!
I also got a chance to do some tourism and get to know a bit about America. It so happened that I was there in July and got to celebrate Independence Day with Americans. It was amazing to see how they felt free to dance, eat and drink, join parades, and have the best time. After July 4th, I visited the San Diego Zoo, home to more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals. Some of these animals we have in Rwanda, but others we don’t. Seeing the panda was really interesting! I also visited the US-Mexico Border and met the Mayor of San Diego in his office.
My journey in California was really an experience that I will keep in my memories for very many years. From my heart I really appreciate Akilah staff and my classmates who motivated and helped me all along the way from application, to acceptance, to my return home to Rwanda. I am who I am today because of many opportunities I got from my school, Akilah Institute for Women. Thank you for making all this possible!