Students share highlights from Rwanda travel study

Students remember an extraordinary trip and Mr. Rand announces a big change for next year.

From February 19 until March 10, a group of 28 Harwood Union High School students traveled across the Atlantic as part of the school’s Rwandan Travel Study program. They spent three weeks immersed in Rwandan culture, both in the city and the countryside. Each student artfully documented their unique perspective and experience, creating captivating projects as their trip came to an end. The final phase of the program was to share what they learned with the community. A gathering at Zenbarn in Waterbury Center gave them that opportunity. 

“Eat, drink, be merry, and ask questions!”  Harwood sophomore Ellie Buckingham announced as she ended her introduction and invited the eager chattering crowd to mingle and visit the student displays. 

A large group of students, parents, grandparents, and curious community members were transported to Rwanda on Sunday, April 16, inside the restaurant. Loud, festive music echoed as people wandered around the exhibits, viewing the traveling students’ hard work. There were video presentations ranging from “the meaning of love” to an interview with a bus driver. Each was equally fascinating and informational. 

On a fittingly hot day, students answered question after question about their experience in the Land of 1,000 Hills, as Rwanda is known. From their interactions in relating their stories, it was clear the travelers shared a permanent bond. 

Vermont filmmaker Meredith Goodwin who was with the group for the trip expressed her excitement for the event. “Even though not everyone in this room can physically visit Rwanda, you get to experience some of it today, some of Rwanda pouring into you,” she said. 

Chaperone, Harwood English teacher and trip director Steve Rand added: “Tonight is just a great opportunity to share experiences and it’s good closure for the students. It’s an opportunity to wrap your mind around a place 7,000 miles away… the community can get a unique view of Rwanda’s culture.”

And they were right as occasionally a snippet of Kinyarwandan – an African language of the Bantu family spoken in Rwanda – could be heard, students greeting each other in their own unique manner. There were videos of dancing and singing around every corner, the joy of Rwanda reached the audiences through film. 

After speaking to each student, it was evident the trip wasn’t only a learning experience, it also taught this group lessons they plan to share with the community and keep with them in the future. 

For starters, it’s now clear that Rwanda is not just a faraway African country. “It’s also such a happy place – the happiness is everywhere,” said sophomore Isabelle Fish.

Classmate Susannah Smith agreed. “I think my biggest takeaway would be all the joy that is in their culture and the happiness. All of the people there are super kind and welcoming,” she said. “I want to bring back pieces of that happiness and welcoming culture and make that more normal in our community.” 

Junior Janelle Hoskins added to this eloquently, “I want to keep with me the kindness. That’s something I want to carry with me for the rest of my life. I hope the other kids do, too.” 

Others commented on how the experience gave them a new understanding of the world and of themselves. “I want to feel more confident in meeting people, they’re so social [Rwandans], and I think that family dynamic of bringing people in – I think it’s really beautiful,” shared sophomore Ava Poutre. She also commented on how she now feels a deep emotional bond with the country. “One of my favorite things I got to experience on the trip were the connections. I felt like whenever they were happy I was happy, and when they were sad, I was sad. I wish that was more normal to see here.” 

The students’ projects radiated joy, showing the community everything they described using beautiful pictures, sounds, and videos. 

One project interviewed a Rwandan man who said, “What makes Rwanda beautiful is its people: so friendly, cool, and calm.” In another project focusing on the experience of motherhood, a young Rwandan woman said, “If I don’t have some food to feed my child, a neighbor will take us in and feed us.”

The student travelers highlighted the beauty of the place, something the people they met in Rwanda value as well. They also picked up on how the Rwandan people they encountered seemed to immensely appreciate the peace and happiness in their country, particularly in sharp contrast to Rwanda’s past. Community has emerged through the tragedy of the 1994 genocide, and they now have systems in place to grow and stay strong.

Three-time chaperone and Harwood English teacher Tedin Lange reflected on the students’ understanding. “I have been most pleased with the way they see Rwanda as a much more complex place. I remember a student, his friend said, you know, ‘what do you mean it was fun? They don’t have any money there,’ and the student was very offended. I think they feel responsible for helping other people understand this county, and I appreciate how much they care.”


A Big Shift for Mr. Rand


Looking into the future, Rand has a new position next year facilitating and coordinating travel experiences for Harwood students that will offer more opportunities to expand student understanding. In an interview he described his job as entailing: “Starting new travel studies, both nationally and internationally, and also creating exchanges both nationally and internationally.” 

Having organized the Rwanda program since 2009, Rand will now look to add new destinations and collaborations thanks to $134,000 in what is hoped to be the first phase of federal funding meant to grow the program over the next seven years. “I think that Bernie Sanders’ office really appreciated the idea of national, international, and then exchange,” reflected Rand. 

Rand will look to form new exchange partnerships with public schools in the United States and in other countries. With programs like Denmark starting back up again, and a trip to India on the horizon, possibilities seem endless. 

The goal, Rand said, will be to instill empathy and appreciation of other cultures in students for years to come. When asked how he wants to see this reflected in the community, he responded simply, “creating cultural awareness, right?” He added, “You know, we’re a global community, one humanity here. It really is– it’s vital that we understand the world we live in. It’s vital. And you know what, you can’t get it unless we get outside the wall. So we want to do that as much as possible.” The goal is noble, and with the support of the national grant, Rand hopes to make substantial progress over the next year.

Although he will miss the classroom and teaching English, especially creative writing, he sees the hole in our system that needs to be filled. “I wanted to see if I can help support getting students elsewhere in the country and in the world,” said Rand in an interview. “We’re evolving slowly. But as we evolve, we can have more transformative experiences in a school,” adding on,“It’s the right time to start really thinking big about transforming our school into not just being encased in cement walls, but just being something different than that.”