Since 2004, Harwood Union High School students have traveled to Rwanda. "The Rwanda Travel Study started when a former student, Jesse Hawkes, shared his HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention work,” Harwood English teacher and program leader Steve Rand said. “His work supported the country's recovery efforts from the genocide in 1994.” Hawkes and his father came to Harwood to give a presentation on their work, which Rand said “captured the hearts and minds of students and staff. Since 2004, Harwood students and teachers have been traveling to Rwanda. Over 200 students and staff have gone to-date. In 2009, the school began collaborating with the Vermont Folklife Center, which has turned the program into a rich immersion experience focused on the practice of ethnography, which helps us learn as much as we can in a short amount of time about people, place, and culture. "
This February, 28 Harwood students and five teachers, including Rand, Tara Cariano, Tedin Lange, Rachael Potts and Paul Kramer, will travel to Rwanda for three weeks (a week prior to February break, during break, and another half week after). This is the first Harwood trip to Rwanda since 2018 due to an Ebola outbreak followed by the COVID pandemic. Harwood students in grades 10-12 are eligible for the trip.
While there, students will stay with host families; immerse themselves in Rwandan culture and work on a media project in collaboration with ethnographers from the Vermont Folklife Center. Past projects have included comparing and contrasting gender in Rwanda and the U.S. Rand said one possible topic of study this year may be how students in Rwanda dealt with COVID, comparing and contrasting how the pandemic impacted Harwood students. After living with host families, the students will travel to a retreat center where they will continue to work on their media project. At the end of the trip, they will go on safari.
“The biggest benefit is an eye-opening cultural awareness,” Rand said. “It’s hard to emulate this kind of learning in the classroom. It’s impossible to recreate these opportunities of cross-cultural experiences. We’ve been able to form some amazing partnerships with organizations and schools” in Rwanda.
Senior Miranda Rayfield, who will be going on the trip, called it “a wonderful opportunity to experience a culture that we wouldn’t usually.” When asked what she’s looking forward to, she said, “Just meeting people and trying to understand the culture. I grew up in Vermont and haven’t traveled much. I’m excited to experience all kinds of different things.”
The cost of the trip, which includes funds to provide requested items for Rwandans, which in the past have included fabrics and soccer cleats for kids, is approximately $4,000 per student. The students are hosting two fundraisers, the first of which took place on November 12 with a book fair at Tempest Book Shop in Waitsfield which raised over $900. All the proceeds from used books sold at The Tempest for the remainder of 2022 will be donated to the funds raised for the trip. The second fundraiser will be a silent auction with live music by a Rwandan band as well as, the students hope, a Harwood band, at Zen Barn on December 4.
In preparation for the trip, the group has been meeting about once a month. Students will begin working with the ethnographers in January to learn ethnographic practices. After the last few years of COVID, Rand said “some students are just anxious to see the world. By and large, it’s a pretty transformational experience for students. It’s a pretty amazing opportunity to spend a great deal of time with people their own age and get a global perspective.” He said some students who have participated in the program have gone on to study international studies, anthropology and filmmaking.
Rand said “the community has been very supportive” of the trip throughout the years and the students plan to have a community gathering upon their return to share some of the collaborative stories they created and what they learned.