Focus on Kigali: ‘This Experience Solidified My Love for Documenting Experiences’

Photojournalism student returned home with improved portfolio, affirmation of of career path and many new friends

Sophia Lucente went to Kigali, Rwanda, with a camera in hand and rarely set it down the entire three weeks she was there. 

Lucente was one of a group of Kent State University students who took the education-abroad course, Rwanda After the Genocide Against the Tutsi, known as the Kigali Summer Institute, over three weeks in July.  

A senior journalism major from Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, Lucente had hoped that the education-abroad course would help her to build a portfolio as she prepares for a career, possibly in international photojournalism. 

She returned home with plenty of photos and confirmation that she is on the right career path. 

“This experience solidified my love for documenting experiences, learning about other people’s lives who are very different from my own, and understanding peace and conflict. I hope I get to continue to do this throughout my career,” she said. 

The course was developed and taught by Sarah Schmidt, Ph.D., an instructor in the School of Peace and Conflict Studies and assistant director of global education initiatives at Kent State University at Stark, the study trip explores the post-genocide reconstruction of Rwanda and issues related to peace and conflict in the context of the country’s history.   

Lucente said she was excited for the Rwandan experience, to have the luxury of three weeks to talk to the Rwandan people and learn their stories.  

Student Sophia Lucente shops for souvenirs in Kigali, Rwanda.

“I knew we would be doing a lot of going into villages and talking people who had been affected by the genocide there, to find out what it was like and how they've built their country up so much since the genocide,” she said.  

As an aspiring photojournalist, Lucente was most excited about the opportunity to capture meaningful images and build her portfolio.  

During her time in Rwanda, Lucente also was a presenter at the peace conference sponsored by Kent State’s School of Peace and Conflict Studies and Gerald H. Read Center for International and Intercultural Education, along with the University of Rwanda and the Aegis Trust.  

Kent State Senior Sophia Lucente takes part in the university-sponsored global peace conference

In January, Lucente took part in a similar education-abroad trip to Colombia, which came about due to a course she took in the School of Peace and Conflict Studies, “Nonviolence in Theory and Practice,” with Assistant Professor Sara Koopman, Ph.D.  

Through that trip, Lucente met Schmidt, who leads the Kigali Summer Institute.  

Lucente presented at the peace conference on the topic, “Stories in Conversation: Storytelling as Informal Peace Education and a Tool for Transformational Learning,” with two other Kent State students from the Colombia trip. 

Kent State student Sophia Lucente presents at a peace conference in Kigali, Rwanda

Because of the Colombia trip, Lucente said she had an idea of the conversations about the peace-building process and what they would look like. “I was excited to hear their stories because it was a different experience from Colombia because [the Rwandan people] are so much farther along,” she said.  

One of her most special memories was spending the day with a fellow Kent State student Miles Listerman, who was also taking the summer institute course, visiting the home of a friend they made on the trip who is a student at the University of Rwanda, meeting his parents and younger sister, 16, and brother, 7. 

“As we went to leave, our friend’s younger sister wanted to give me a gift, so she slipped the bracelet she was wearing off her wrist and onto mine to give me as a gift. This meant so much to me, that she connected enough with me to gift me something she was wearing and obviously liked,” Lucente said.  

Kent State student Sophia Lucente visits a store selling traditional items in Kigali, Rwanda.

Another memorable day was a visit to the northern province with a tour guide named Fraterne. 

“While it was a beautiful area, we got to see the house he grew up in, the animals in his backyard, the mountain paths he would walk through as a child and he introduced us to his father,” Lucente said. “His house was a small, concrete house with cows, goats and rabbits in the backyard. From the backyard, there was a beautiful view of the lake. Later that day, we saw a cultural dance and got to swim in the lake we saw from his house. This day stuck with me because it was beautiful, but also because we got to see how someone in the rural regions of Rwanda lived outside of an educational setting. Fraterne and his family were so kind to us, and I hope his business does well in the future.” 

Student Sophia Lucente listens to genocide survivors talk in Kigali, Rwanda.

As she concludes her education, Lucente said she enjoys local journalism but also has a goal of practicing international photojournalism. 

Sophia Lucente takes a photo at the reconciliation village in Rwanda.

Lucente chose Kent State for her education because of its School of Media and Journalism, but she arrived on campus still unsure of what type of career she wanted to pursue. Her interest in nonviolence and peace and conflict studies was sparked by a course in media advocacy with Associate Professor Stephanie Smith, Ph.D.  

“I added on the media advocacy minor and that's kind of how I got into nonviolence and the peace and conflict school too,” she said. “Through the classes I've taken, I've fallen in love with journalism and photojournalism and realize this is what I want to do.”   

In addition to the educational and career development, Lucente said an unexpected bonus of the trip was the friendships she formed with her classmates in the summer institute. 

“One of the things I did not expect was the wonderful group of people from Kent I met on the trip,” she said. “Since I am a photojournalist, I constantly shoved my camera in people’s faces, documenting everything. Everyone was so receptive to me doing this and supported me with whatever I was doing. I cannot express in words how much their support meant to me. They went from people I was going on this trip with to some of my closest friends.” 

Student Sophia Lucente takes photos in Kigali, Rwanda.

Photo Credit: Robert Christy, Kent State University

POSTED: Thursday, November 2, 2023 02:18 PM
Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023 03:53 PM
Lisa Abraham