‘There’s Nothing that Can Adequately Prepare You for Such an Extraordinary Experience’
LaKaleb Bowen, Kent State University senior criminology and justice studies major admits that he’s become a little addicted to Kent State’s education-abroad programs.
“It’s like skydiving, if I’m being honest, because it’s unforgettable,” the Canton, Ohio, native said.
Bowen’s trip to Rwanda was his third education-abroad experience, having taken part in previous programs studying cultural foundations in Mexico and a trip to Colombia that focused on how the peace process was working in a country that had been ravaged by civil war.
However, he said neither prepared him for his experience taking the education-abroad course Rwanda After the Genocide Against the Tutsi for three weeks in Rwanda this past July.
Known as the Kigali Summer Institute, 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 course explores the post-genocide reconstruction of Rwanda and issues related to peace and conflict in the context of the country’s history.
"I opted for the Kigali Summer Institute to gain a deeper understanding of their culture and perspective,” Bowen said. "I hoped that it would not only be a distinct experience but one that would offer unique insights. However, calling it insightful is an understatement. There's nothing that can adequately prepare you for such an extraordinary experience."
When heading to Rwanda, Bowen said he wasn’t well-versed in the history or the reconciliation process. “I think there’s a lot to ponder on neighbors killing neighbors,” he said.
Students in the course spent time learning about the 1994 genocide and how Rwanda has tried to overcome its past by instilling peace education in all its educational curriculums. Part of the course involved touring a reconciliation village where survivors of the genocide live alongside those who perpetrated the violence, even those who killed their family members.
Bowen said he was amazed by the level of forgiveness he witnessed.
“How do you learn to forgive your neighbor for genocide?” Bowen said. “I would say that has been the greatest purpose [of the course].”
Bowen said American society could benefit from the kind of restorative justice programs he learned about in Rwanda, but believes it might be a hard sell in the U.S. “Just learning to trust your neighbors again, we don’t have that in the U.S. like we used to.”
Bowen said he was forced to look inward to ask whether he would be able to forgive and love like his neighbor as was done by those he learned from in Kigali.
Seven students took part in this year’s Kigali Summer Institute, a mix of graduate and undergraduate students, from a variety of majors.
What surprised Bowen most of all, he said, was how everyone in the group was able to use their different backgrounds and expertise to contribute to the course.
“The ability for us all to use different areas of our fields together has been my favorite part,” he said.
Bowen started taking courses at Kent State as a junior at Canton McKinley High School, through the College Credit Plus program and Kent State’s Rising Scholars Program, which helps students from underserved populations.
While his father briefly attended Kent State and his mother attended a community college, he will be the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Bowen has taken most of his courses at Kent State’s Stark Campus and expects to graduate in December with a degree in criminology. He isn’t sure what his next step might be.
As a child, he thought he might want to run for Congress or be president of the U.S., but now he realizes those aren’t necessarily jobs he would want. He is considering graduate school, law school, or even enlisting in a branch of the military for the same adventure and thrill that he gets from studying abroad. His previous trips abroad have enabled him to climb mountains and swim with dolphins. In Rwanda, he was able to go on safari.
“So many different opportunities have thrown themselves in front of me. I’ll just have to wait and see,” Bowen said.
Whatever track he pursues, Bowen will always carry the unique perspective that his education-abroad trips have provided him.
“You know, you take courses every day and it feels like real life, but when you go out and you experience in-the-field research and you get to meet the people on the ground, there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing that parallels that kind of learning experience,” Bowen said.
Photos by Bob Christy/Kent State University