by ALEXIA SIMONTON
The J-term in Rwanda provided students with an opportunity to grow in their appreciation for community and sustainability while allowing them to gain new perspectives on their lives and future careers.
Michael Renner, a professor of biology, psychology, environmental science and sustainability, traveled with 16 students to see four national parks, participate in a day of service, and study ecotourism, conservation and genocide in Rwanda just 25 years after the Rwandan genocide.
Education Abroad adviser Nathan Jacobson shared his perspective on the importance of a global experience such as the Rwanda J-term.
“We advocate for students to have international experiences because it allows them to gain fresh perspective, learn about another place or people and often allows you to learn more about yourself and where you call home,” Jacobson said.
Renner started taking students to Rwanda in 2016.
“This country has a national scale thought about how to do conservation and use ecotourism to build the economy,” Renner said. “Once students have seen one of those amazing places on earth, they become ambassadors of it.”
Renner is able to be an ambassador through collecting powerful examples and striking images to use back in the classroom of how animals find mates, find food and handle predators. Students who went on the trip have become ambassadors not only for sustainability, but for the values and lessons they learned along the way.
Abbey Youker, a student who went on the trip, was visibly emotional when describing the lesson she took away the most from her experience Rwanda.
“You learn about how much the Rwandans used forgiveness in order to save both themselves and the people that hurt them,” Youker said. “If they can forgive people for doing something like that [genocide] then I can definitely forgive someone for getting on my last nerve. It made me a lot more patient and more in check with what really matters.”
Junior Allie Girvan also discovered a new outlook on life during the trip.
“I’m a lot more aware of waste and my privileges,” Girvan said. “When we were hanging out with the kids, they had very dirty legs because they don’t get to shower every day or have multiple choices of clothes. It’s made me want to be a minimalist.”
The trip’s focus on environmental sustainability and ecotourism has impacted both students’ future plans for a career. Youker’s experience seeing the animals in the wild has led to new research questions.
“In zoos, there are so many limitations,” Youker said. “I want to know how I can increase the wellness of these animals that are being protected and the animals that are in the zoo. How can I increase the wellness of the two while using each other?”
Girvan found inspiration for her career through Rwanda’s sustainability accomplishments.
“After I went there, I was sure that I wanted to be a city planner,” Girvan said. “I want to work for a national park and help develop it. You can do so much sustainability with that.”
Beyond careers and life lessons, the students made memories and friendships that are still important to them today. Through seeing gorillas in real life, getting charged by an elephant, having long bus rides with each other and doing community service work, the students formed special friendships in just a two-and-a-half-week period.
“The entire group was so diverse,” Youker said. “It has made me want to reach out to a lot more people at Drake. There are so many cool people here that I never even glanced at.”
The global perspective that the Rwanda J-term gave to many environmental science, animal conservation and sustainability interested students is an example of how J-terms can impact a student’s life.
“I wish every Drake student had the opportunity to get an experience like this for them and their interests,” Renner said. “Every student needs to have an amazing, this is why I came to college, experience.”
Girvan said she was lucky to have the Rwandan experience that gave her a lesson that can be applied far beyond Rwanda and far beyond J-term 2020.
“When there is a tragedy in society, I think you can grow together and work together,” Girvan said. “Rwanda really shows that.”