‘My Heart Feels Softer’
When she signed up for the Kigali Summer Institute in Rwanda, Kent State University senior Emily Spencer, thought it would be a good training ground for humanitarian work she hopes to perform in the future.
When she returned from three weeks in Rwanda in July, Spencer said she felt significantly changed.
“Post returning home from Rwanda my heart feels softer, and my perspective on gratitude, empathy and forgiveness has expanded exponentially. I saw ways I had grown accustomed to comforts that I should never forget are privileges. I now have a deeper understanding of what it means to be human,” Spencer said.
Kent State has offered the education abroad course, “Rwanda After the Genocide Against the Tutsi,” since 2019. Known as the Kigali Summer Institute, the course takes place over three weeks in Rwanda in July.
Developed and taught by Sarah Schmidt, Ph.D., an instructor in the Kent State 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.
Spencer, a senior human development and family sciences major, lives in North Canton, Ohio, but grew up in nearby Canal Fulton. After graduating from Jackson High School in 2019, she was not sure what she wanted to study in college but found that the Human Development and Family Sciences program at Kent State University at Stark checked all the boxes on her list.
“I knew I was interested in some kind of major involving psychology, social work or child development; I wanted to stay local for it to be affordable. I saw the Kent State Stark Human Development and Family Studies [HDFS] program, and it is really the Swiss Army knife of human services and was the exact kind of degree I was looking for,” Spencer said.
“HDFS was a great program at a great price at a great local community. I am six minutes from my job, 10 minutes from home and 15 minutes from my parents,” she said. Spencer works 30 hours a week as a nanny for a toddler in the Canton, Ohio, area, and expects to graduate in December.
Spencer knows she will be able to take her degree in many directions, but in the short term is thinking about joining the Peace Corps or a similar humanitarian effort.
Schmidt encouraged Spencer to think about the Rwanda trip for an education-abroad experience. “I had never been out of the country before and I thought it sounded super interesting,” she said.
Spencer said Schmidt worked with her to find scholarships to help make the education-abroad trip affordable. “Sarah has worked with me and helped me figure out how to manage the finances and has supported me through all of it. She went out of her way to help me with this.”
Never having been abroad, Spencer was expecting a bit of culture shock in Rwanda but was hoping the experience would help prepare her for future Peace Corps work.
“Peace solves a lot of issues,” she said. “I have a basic perspective, but there are so many different lives being lived outside the United States. It’s one thing to study it, but another to go and live it and see it.”
Once in Rwanda, Spencer said she was immediately at ease.
“I was much more comfortable in Rwanda than I anticipated I would be. Considering how safe the country is and how kind and welcoming all the people are, the trip was that much more impactful,” she said. “I am forever grateful to Sarah Schmidt and the University of Rwanda for creating such an open space to learn. I could ask any question or have any emotion and it was met with understanding,”
Before the trip, Spencer knew little about the 1994 Rwandan Genocide Against the Tutsi and the country’s recovery but believed the history would provide a good backdrop from which she could begin forming her global perspective.
“I cannot recommend the trip to Rwanda enough. I see life through a different lens now. Any student can benefit from broadening their global perspective. The recovery of Rwanda post-genocide is one of the biggest glimpses of hope we may have access to witness in our lifetime. I would have regretted passing this opportunity up had I not gone,” Spencer said.
While the Kigali Summer Institute was her first trip outside of the U.S., it was not Spencer’s first adventure. In the fall of 2021, she took a semester off to travel the West Coast by herself, living out of her SUV, with the hatch converted for a sleeping area. She used a gym membership to have access to showers, no matter her location.
“I knew that if I did the trip by myself, I would be forced out of my comfort zone. The West was super beautiful. I didn’t have a single negative experience on the trip,” she said.
Likewise, Rwanda proved to be a life-changing experience.
“My favorite part of traveling to Rwanda was the community I was proud to be a part of. The students I traveled with, and our brilliant professor Sarah, and our friends/mentors from the University of Rwanda made the trip unforgettable,” Spencer said. “The comfort, love, learning and expansion I was able to experience because of this group will stick with me for the rest of my life.”