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Learning in Rwanda

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Alumnus Shawn Grund: Serving in the Peace Corps

Shawn Grund with Rwandan host family  
Shawn Grund with his host family from training prior to being assigned to the Rwandan village of Cyahinda.

Soon after graduating from UMD with a degree in Communication, Shawn Grund (’10) entered the Peace Corps. He is now posted in Rwanda, where he has found that communication is fundamental to everything he does. He is about halfway through his 27-month service. He talks more about what he is learning than what his students may be learning from him. “The experience has taught me a lot about myself.”

Grund teaches classes in English, giving lessons in math to 8th graders and computer literacy to 11th graders. But when class is over, when he tries to speak Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan dialect, he finds it easiest to communicate with the five and six-year-olds. “We have the same vocabulary level,” he laughed.

“You have to be free and loose – just go with it. When I speak [the Rwandan dialect], they laugh at me. You have to laugh about it,” he said. And he can empathize. In 2009, Rwanda mandated that all school classes must be taught in English. They were previously taught in French. He sees the way his students struggle to make themselves understood in English. He understands that they get a kick out of seeing their teacher struggle when the tables are turned.

Initially, Grund worried about the teaching portion of his service. “I thought that would be the hardest part, but it turned out to be the easiest thing,” he said. What has proven harder is fitting in. “The biggest thing is integration: living in a close knit village as the only white person.” The village, Cyahinda, has a population of about 600-700 people. He realizes that he is always going to stand out, as “a six-foot white guy in a Rwandan village.” Yet he doesn’t let that hinder him. He has gotten to know the other teachers at the school, and he spends time in the homes of the people around him.

Grund with some of his students  
Grund with a few of his students after a Peace Corps sponsored boy's camp.
Grund in northern Rwanda  
Above the Butaro Waterfall in Northern Rwanda.
He works to foster trust. “I try to convey that I am not here to show you what to do, but that I’m here to help.” He strives to let his work speak for itself. When he first arrived, the computer lab had one working computer, dozens of broken computers, and a generator, but no electricity. Overtime, Grund rebuilt the computers. “I was a computer science major for a year,” he noted. Now the lab has electricity and about 25 working computers. That still means 2-3 students per computer (there are often 50-60 kids in a class), but it’s an improvement.

Grund was matched with Rwanda because his skill set met their needs. Once he was accepted into the Peace Corps, he received training in Rwanda before being assigned to his village. In addition to learning about Rwanda and its culture, “we were given a history of the conflict and the genocide.” In 1994, it has been estimated that over 800,000 men, women, and children were murdered during tribal conflicts.

His younger students, who were born in refugee camps or in foreign countries, have only heard stories. But some of his students are in their mid-twenties. “The older students remember what happened. They can visually remember it,” he said. But he added, “They don’t generally talk about it.” He expresses concerns, shared by the World Health Organization, that these experiences and failure to treat those affected could lead to mental illness. He doesn’t, however, want to give the impression that his students are morose. He describes them as “very smart, very happy, and very outgoing.”

Grund would encourage anyone interested in the Peace Corps to look into it. “It’s not for everyone, but it’s a very good experience.” He believes the Peace Corps has the power to transform the people who serve. “You don’t know how much you will learn about yourself, your limits, the language, and the culture until you get there,” he said.

Grund writes a blog for UMD's Alworth Institute for International Studies about the Peace Corps, Rwanda, and living overseas.

Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann, January, 2012. Research by Jessica Coffin

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