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Student Profiles

Caroline visiting Kibuye, Rwanda

Overseas Study Program

Rwanda

Studying abroad can be a scary concept, but I'm a firm believer that often the biggest risks have the biggest payoffs.”

Caroline Ellert

Majors: Political Science & English

Term abroad: Spring 2015

Why did you choose this program? I chose this program because I wanted an in-depth, immersive experience that was far outside my comfort zone. Prior to my study abroad, I had lived in the United States my entire life and had only had travel experiences in Western Europe. I really wanted to experience a culture that was significantly different from the one I've already experienced. With this study abroad program, I had the opportunity to learn about a terrible moment in history from a unique perspective--on the ground, right in the middle of a post-conflict society. Rwanda was and is still recovering economically and socially from the 1994 genocide, which was my primary topic of study while I was there. Instead of learning about the genocide in a classroom setting, I knew I would be able to interact with people who had lived through it and were directly participating in the subsequent recovery. This was a topic that I knew was extremely important to study  in order to prevent genocides from occurring--the Rwandan genocide could have been prevented had the international community intervened sooner and more effectively.

Describe your favorite classes abroad. In Rwanda, my classes were not as structured as they are in a typical college setting. Rather than having a specific class at a specific time, most of the time our classes were blended into site visits to NGOs, genocide memorials, and government agencies. In addition, our classes were also woven into our everyday interactions--with our host families, at the market, even on the bus. As a result, it's impossible for me to pick one favorite class. Everything we learned was interrelated, and we were able to apply it to our daily experiences.

What was the housing like on your study abroad program? For the first three months of the program, I lived with a Rwandan host family. Some other family members were in and out of the house, but for the most part it was myself, my host mom, an older host sister, and an older host brother. For the last month of the program, when we were conducting independent research, three other American students and I rented a house. It was great to have both experiences. With my host family, I felt like I got a very authentic and immersive experience, but I also got the chance to learn how to live on my own in a new country.

What advice would you like to give to future study abroad students? My advice is always to keep your options open. Before I looked into the Rwanda program, I could never have pictured myself studying abroad in Africa. Now, I consider it one of the best decisions I have ever made. Studying abroad can be a scary concept, but I'm a firm believer that often the biggest risks have the biggest payoffs. It's also important to listen to yourself and your own desires. Your friends and family may want to have a lot of input in your decision, but ultimately it's your life and your choice. You shouldn't be pressured to choose one program over another because of what other people think. Finally, most people who study abroad for only a summer or a semester wish they could study abroad longer. If you can, study abroad for as long as you can! It may be the only time in your life when you get to live abroad, so take advantage of it.

What’s your best memory from your time abroad? There are so many happy memories I have of being abroad, so it's always very difficult for me to pick just one. I have especially happy memories of my last week in Rwanda, though. We spent it in Kibuye near Lake Kivu, a beautiful beach area. We had just finished our research projects, and this was an opportunity to both relax and reflect on our experiences. There were only 16 students on my program and we all became extremely close, so we spent every possible moment with each other. We watched the sunrise, went on a boat ride, explored an island, and overall had a great time in a beautiful area. It was such a great way to process our experiences, and it was also one of the last times these people who had become my family were all together as a group.

What was your biggest surprise about the location, culture or other aspects of your program? It sounds strange, but I was surprised at how loud the city was. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa, so there seemed to never be a quiet moment, whether it was children playing, motorcycles roaring, or cars honking. I was also surprised at the amount of Fanta Rwandans drink. It was offered to me at almost every meal, and it comes in more flavors than in the United States. I don't think I've drunk so much soda in my life.

Describe your experience with culture shock or reverse culture shock. I think the reverse culture shock was much worse than the initial culture shock. I had a layover in Amsterdam, and just seeing that airport was very disorienting. I was suddenly surrounded by consumerism with all of the airport shops, "normal" toilets and water fountains, and people who looked and dressed completely differently than most of the people I had been interacting with for the past four months. The airport itself seemed extraneous and ostentatious. I thought that I was going to have a big, American meal first thing when I got back to the States, but as it turned out all I wanted was a Rwandan rice and beans buffet. It was difficult to explain to my friends and family why all these things I had once taken for normal suddenly seemed so strange. I struggled to convey the depth of my experience to my friends and family and to answer the "How was Africa?" question so many people asked. I eventually came to terms with the fact that not everyone would understand or relate to my experience, but that didn't make it any less significant.

“If I could do it over, I would…” "...probably have done it exactly the same."

What do you know now that you didn’t know before you went abroad? I am now more aware of international issues and I also feel closer to them. I have formed personal relationships with people in a different part of the world, and as a result I feel more invested in the problems of that region. It sounds cliché, but the world feels a lot smaller. I feel a lot closer to issues around the world that don't always impact our day-to-day reality in the United States.

What do you wish someone had told you before you left? For the most part, I got really great advice before I left. I do wish someone had reminded me to keep a more thorough record of my time abroad, though, whether it be through a journal or photographs. At the time, I think I thought I would remember certain things better than I actually do a year and a half later.

What was your greatest challenge? Honestly, my greatest challenge was probably when my computer broke. I thought I was becoming more independent from certain Western luxuries, but as it turns out I was still pretty reliant on my technology. It broke right before I was supposed to turn in a research proposal, and there were no public computers I could have used like there would be in the U.S. There was no local Apple store with native English speakers I could take it to either. With the help of the program staff, I did get it fixed, but it was a lot more of a hassle than it usually is in the U.S. It may sound petty, but many people know that having an expensive bit of technology break down on you when you need it the most is stressful enough. When it happens in a foreign country with limited amenities, it becomes even more stressful. It was the first and probably only time that I wished I was back in the U.S., because I knew that fixing that particular problem would have been much easier.

Discuss: “Going abroad vs. staying on campus.” I loved spending a year abroad, but it is true that I missed out on some traditional IU experiences. I wouldn't trade my study abroad experience for the world, but I know some people who don't want to study abroad because they want to be on campus all four years--and that's understandable. However, if that is the case for you, I would still encourage you to go abroad, just for a shorter period of time. Summer programs are a great option for students who don't want to miss out on campus life. Studying abroad is probably the best chance you'll get to travel in your lifetime, so you should take advantage of it.

What fact about your host country do you think people would be surprised to learn? I think people would be surprised to learn that Rwanda is extremely green and has mild weather all year round. Most people are typically presented with a stereotypical image of Africa--a dry wasteland, with a few giraffes and zebras running through. Rwanda is a very green country with lots of hills and spectacular views, not what people normally expect from an African country.

How did you find scholarships for study abroad? One of the study abroad advisors recommended that I apply for the Gilman Scholarship, which accounted for a huge chunk of my budget. I also applied to other IU scholarships, including one through the Union Board, which I was a member of at the time.

Would you recommend other students pursue any specific scholarship opportunities? If you're receiving a Pell Grant, I would definitely recommend the Gilman. The HIEP grant through Hutton is also extremely generous.