I can recall looking at the fellowship program and feeling drawn towards the chance to make a social impact. I desperately wanted to go into a cross-cultural context and do meaningful work. Despite this desire, I hesitated when it came time to apply. I told myself it was going to be too rigorous, too challenging, and that social entrepreneurship didn’t align with my future goals. Now I see I was full of doubt not in the program but in myself. My deficiency of self-worth and value was something that I hid very well. I masked my suspicion with a layer of false confidence and a smile. I essentially faked it till I made it and I am so glad I did because being awarded the fellowship was the most significant gift I could have received.
COMMUNITY CROSSING BORDERS
My junior year after I came back from abroad I felt a loss of community. Looking around I struggled to find others who related to me, and there was even a sense of feeling isolated in the Santa Clara bubble. Before going into the field, it became a concern of mine that I would feel alone in a new environment too. Even though I was going with a team, it was hard to picture the dynamic that would take place once we were in Rwanda. My fears disappeared immediately upon arrival in Rwanda. I was taken aback by the amount of hospitality we received from the moment we stepped foot in the country. Fr. Innocent who was one of the people running PICO Rwanda and a Jesuit Priest residing at Center Cristus took us under his wing. Many things were different from what we were used to in the United States such as the warmer climate, beautiful yet soft-spoken people, and roads with moto drivers shouting for passengers to get on the back. Fr. Innocent acted as our guide helping us assimilate to all the sensations around. He was so easy to talk to and I found myself settling in the culture very fast.
The staff at Centre Christus ended up bringing a smile to my face every day and night. It became a ritual of mine to go into the kitchen to say hi to the staff. Although I didn’t know much Kirwanda, the little phrases I managed to memorize led to an uproar of laughter from every Rwandan in the room. In return, they gave me hugs before I went to bed. The simple acts of kindness from them were mighty and demonstrated that relationships transcend beyond just verbal language. The mutual ability to emote and show an understanding of love and respect was so strong that it created a sense of community. To be so far away from home yet feel so comfortable with the people around was an incredible realization. Despite the different backgrounds Centre Christus fostered a home-like atmosphere to build impactful relationships and learn. People from all walks of life would gather together to listen, share, discuss, and unwind. It indeed was never a dull day in Rwanda.
When discerning my vocation I can’t ignore the pull I feel to go back to East Africa. Not only is it where I originate from, but it is the place where I feel most like myself. Before I go to grad school for social work, it is a goal of mine to work in Uganda or Rwanda for a year or two to gain professional experience in community development and further explore my love for social justice.
UNLOCKING MY SELF-WORTH
Before the fellowship, I was recovering from a traumatic event. I couldn’t understand why people believed in me because I didn’t see my own value. Being selected as a fellow, I was ecstatic. I thought to myself FINALLY because growing up I had little to no mentors. My teachers in my suburban predominately white town didn’t see a future for a black girl and didn’t care to help me. The Miller Center, in contrast, saw that I was intelligent and had skills to offer in Social Entrepreneurship. For the first time, I wasn’t the only one believing in myself (which at times it got exhausting).
The spring before our departure I felt as if I was about to embark on something great but at the middle marker of our time in the field self-doubt crept in. My teammates were all set on what they needed and were supposed to do. To speed production along, we decided to handover the interviewing role to the translators and the Social Enterprise Interns that accompanied us fellows into the field appeared to have everything under control. As a project manager, I should have been happy about everything running so smoothly, but on the contrary, I experienced some confusion. If I was nonessential for the videography aspect of the project and the training wheels I acted as in preparation for the workshops were ready to come off then what was my role? I tried to remind myself that my team's success was a reflection of my project management but I still couldn’t shake off the feeling of purposelessness.
I remember sitting eating dinner feeling still a little sad when a problem arose. There was an issue of communication between PICO Rwanda and the Miller Center which lead me to spring into action, conversing back and forth between the two organizations. PICO Rwanda wanted to show us a coffee factory, and our team needed to focus on our deliverable to make sure everything was in place for the workshops in one week. I was challenged to make sure everyone was comfortable, understood, and walked out with at least something that they wanted.
I remember how exhilarating it was to come up with a solution on the spot and act quickly to keep the conflict from escalating. As a mediator, representative of my team, and spokesperson on behalf of the program I had to balance the complexity of the different parties emotions. For many, that sounds like a situation from hell, but to me, I was in pure bliss. Not only was I managing this communication mishap, but I was confident that my interventions would result in a good outcome for all.
The sense of empowerment I got after the crisis was averted was a feeling I desperately needed. I was overcome with a sense relief knowing that my talent was needed at that moment. When other situations appeared after I leaped at the opportunity to support my team and contribute to the project by effectively communicating with others and solving problems that emerged. Reflecting on this memory, I have now gained a new style of confidence and spirit stemming from self-empowering times in the field. Recounting stories like these from Rwanda additionally leads me to honestly believe in myself and the gifts I have to offer.
When looking at what I want to do in the future, I want to have that feeling of empowerment, confidence, and some pressure to overcome a barrier because that is when I feel the most alive/the most excited. Talking to people and helping everyone feel understood is something that matters a lot to me. I can't think of a better possible way to help others then through communication and empathy.
NO “I” IN TEAM
I use a lot of “I” statements and throughout this essay have been talking mostly about me, but from my time in the fellowship and toward the end of my time in the field I learned the power of “We.” The most important thing I learned that will forever shape my actions is that sustainable growth and community development does not happen alone. To create change their needs to be collectivism. I saw this throughout my time in Rwanda, working with the villages and seeing the fantastic work they accomplished by coming together as a team. This spirit of collectivism I witnessed, in turn, impacted my last interactions with my group comprised of three fellows and three social enterprise interns.
Group dynamics are tricky, and ambiguity makes it even harder. For our team the biggest struggle was communication. I remember the glue keeping us all together was slipping towards the end of the seven weeks. It was the day before our last visit into the field, and everyone was upset sick, and annoyed by each other. During our time in Rwanda, we had all hit breaking points where we felt like we weren’t being listened to and justified our actions without consulting others. By the end, our frustration turned into exhaustion, and we collectively decided to convene for some resolution. We realized that we only work well when we were on the same page. After recognizing that all of our feelings were important, we needed to forgive each other and learn from the situation. Our team was quick to bounce back and we went into the field the next day stronger than ever. We came in with a plan, directly talked to one another, and most importantly validated each other's feelings. The visit to the last village proved to be our most successful. I now perceive the altercations that happened among my team and our ability to solve them as a strength of ours because at the end of the day we were able to set aside our intentions to make a difference in something far more significant than us.
I believe that as humans were naturally inclined to think about our own needs first. From my time in Rwanda to now, I have developed a new perspective. I can step back and question what good is glory when you're alone and have no one to share in the success? I am much more willing now and honestly, would prefer to overcome obstacles with a strong diverse and multidisciplinary group. In the past nine months, I had a lot of powerful transformations, but they would be nothing and mean nothing without my team.
AFTER WORKING WITH PICO RWANDA, I SEE HOW IMPORTANT IT IS TO HELP PEOPLE HELP THEMSELVES AND HOW PROMOTING SUSTAINABLE GROWTH CREATES AGENCY.
The fundamental values of social entrepreneurship that I have obtained from my fellowship experience are something I have decided I want to continue practicing in my future vocation. I have always dreamed of entering the vast field of social work and my time in Rwanda helped establish a better picture of what that could entail. My passions in social work lie in social change and innovation. I want to help strengthen and organize communities whether that is working for a particular agency or being an advocate for marginalized groups. I think by intersecting social work and social entrepreneurship it can lead to a beautiful thing that not only can improve lives, but save lives.
About the author
I am half Ugandan and proud of my multicultural background. While I was growing up, I was fortunate enough to travel to Uganda every summer. Spending time with people who have different life experiences than my own instilled me with values of compassion, consciousness, and cultural competence, that have guided my career choices and activities tremendously. While studying psychology, sociology and ethnic studies at Santa Clara University, my mentors and peers have challenged me to think creatively in response to problem-solving.
Programs at my school that are passionate about social justice have helped me discover that I love learning in new cultures and being pushed to grow. Through my fellowship program, I became a project manager for a community organizing nonprofit in Rwanda. It was there that I realized sharing and listening to experiences has the power to change how we see and interact with those around us. Now I strive to empower, strengthen, and engage underserved communities so that our world becomes a just place for all.