Harwood’s Travel Study returns to “The Land of a Thousand Hills” in 2023

“Rwanda kind of feels like home,” says Harwood Union High School English teacher Stephen Rand. In his 13 trips there, the kinship between Harwood and this remote African country has strengthened. 

The hilly landscape and friendly people remind students and faculty alike that, “People are pretty similar all around the world, no matter where you go,” Rand said. “There’s more similarities than there are differences.” 

In February,  28 Harwood students will get to experience that firsthand on the adventure of a lifetime: Harwood’s travel study. Students will pack up for three weeks and head across the Atlantic to    Rwanda, a small country in Central Africa. 

The trip marks the return of the program which has not led what had become an annual trip to Rwanda since 2018 due to the Ebola outbreak followed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Rand has organized the Rwanda program over the years. He will be joined by fellow English teacher Tedin Lange, school counselor Tara Cariano and humanities teacher Paul Kramer and two Vermont Folklife Center Filmmakers as they accompany the student group from Feb. 19 until March 10. 

The group will participate in activities ranging from working with local high school students to helping out with water purification. They will spend some time in the city of Kigali bunking in hostels, before heading to the small neighborhood of Tubeho where each student will be placed with a host family.​​ “When we go to Rwanda, we become Rwandan people for a while,” said Harwood senior Miranda Rayfield, who’s eagerly anticipating Feb. 19th, the start of her first trip to Africa. Previous school travel studies have found that after spending three weeks deeply immersed in Rwandan culture, Harwood students adapt a new perspective. Teacher Tedin Lange, who has made the journey 2 times, reflected on her experience: “Over the span of the trip, people — including myself — develop a much more nuanced view. It’s like anywhere with rich people and poor people, happy people and grumpy people — people come back with a sense that life in Rwanda is just as complex as here.” Students have picked up on this change, too; people come back with interesting anecdotes and a global mindset. “It’s a great experience to get a new world view, like before I go to college, and it will allow me to see if I want to study abroad,” noted senior Ella Dice.

Some Harwood students, according to Rand, have even chosen to return to Rwanda later in life, both through graduate and undergraduate exchanges. 

This opportunity is like no other. “These are completely different people, a completely different culture that I know nothing about. You learn about Europe in school, and you really don’t learn anything about Africa. So I want to go there to see for myself,” Dice commented. Another aspect of this opportunity’s uniqueness is the country’s relatively recent history of civil war in the early 1990s. “Their country recovered from a genocide. Students see the reality that conflict exists in the world and how groups of people recover from that conflict,” Rand said.

During the trip these students will keep up with the coursework at home and will also actively collect pictures, information, and experience for their concluding project. Upon return to Vermont, the group will present their projects in a public space. In previous years it has been a community event hosted at the Big Picture or Green Mountain Coffee. 

The lessons students take away from this experience are invaluable. Understandably, this can’t be free. The trip’s price tag per student is $3,800.  Students pay the cost through a combination of personal savings, family contributions, and fundraising.  

“Oh, we’ve done everything to raise money. Is there a thing that we haven’t done, really?” Rand asked rhetorically. 

From an anonymous grandparents fund to community event fundraisers, students have gotten creative this year and they have led the organization of fundraisers. There is an ongoing book sale at The Tempest book shop in Waitsfield which will donate all proceeds of used books to the student group until the end of the calendar year. 

The Harwood Travel Study program also is also accepting donations. Anyone wishing to support the program may write a check made out to HUHS with Rwanda in the memo line and send it to Harwood Union High School. 

This weekend in Waterbury Center, the travel study group will run a silent auction and live music event at Zenbarn. The event is Sunday, Dec. 4, from 4 to 6 p.m.  The group has carefully selected prizes ranging from a skincare basket to a stay at the Trapp Family Lodge. The community is invited to stop in to place bids on the items. There will be tasty food and drinks available for purchase as well. Bringing some Rwandan spirit to Vermont, the singer Tchatching “ChaChing” Ngunga will be providing some enthusiastic entertainment. So community members can come join in on the fun and experience Rwandan culture for themselves!