On May 15, 2010, eight Western students stepped off of a plane, out of their comfort zones, and onto the lush, green landscape of Kigali, Rwanda. These students were enrolled in FRE 3100B Rwanda: Culture, Society, and Reconstruction offered through the Department of French Studies, but taught in English with an interdisciplinary focus. In the winter term, students participated in traditional course lectures that included guest speakers, documentaries, and student presentations on topics including women’s rights, healthcare and justice issues. Students’ in-class learning culminated with a four-week community service learning experience in Rwanda.
Professor Henri Boyi of the Department of French Studies says the idea for the course came from a conference he attended where Community Service Learning (CSL) was introduced as a way of engaging students with academic material and improving their overall learning experience. The idea blossomed further because of previously existing partnerships between the National University of Rwanda, the Kigali Health Institute, and the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry. Finally, a successful application to the International Curriculum Fund by Boyi and former French Studies Department Chair Jeff Tennant turned the idea from a dream into reality. The course was designed by Boyi and Tennant with support from The Student Success Centre for the CSL component. The eight undergraduate students travelled to Rwanda with Boyi and worked on projects with three community partners: Kigali Health Institute, Kwa Gisimba Orphanage, and Hope’s Village. Days were spent coordinating children’s activities, supporting health programs, and building a water tank in the community. Evenings were spent in focused reflection about how the students’ experiences were connected to course content, personal and professional skill development, and concepts of social justice and civic engagement.
Boyi was impressed with the students’ connections to the course material when they were able to augment it with real-life experiences. “Their class discussions and assignments were brought to a level of engagement that was characteristic of their strong will to learn, and to learn more,” he says. He acknowledges the students were challenged by learning about, and visiting, a country that was subject to one of the most extreme tragedies in modern history – the 1994 genocide. “When faced with the signs of unimaginable human catastrophe, we fell short of answering the universal philosophical question of why,” reflects Boyi. Instead, he says students’ deep reflection on what happened in Rwanda led them to a better understanding of the human condition and their role in contributing to the on-going struggle to develop just societies.
Boyi has suggestions for faculty interested in exploring a local or international CSL course. He articulates a need to be open-minded, focused on cultural awareness as a learning outcome, and steadfast in one’s belief of students’ capabilities to effect powerful change. He emphasizes the need to find reliable community partners and to spend time nurturing these relationships to achieve positive outcomes for student learning and community service. Finally, he recommends utilizing the resources of The Student Success Centre and the Teaching Support Centre to develop appropriate CSL course objectives, make connections with relevant community partners, and introduce effective reflection assignments.
The Department of French Studies will offer the course again in Winter 2011 with a limited enrolment of 12 students from across all faculties. Information for faculty interested in learning more about Community Service Learning can be found by visiting www.servicelearning.uwo.ca or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.