Building Houses or Building Relationships? Why Latin in Rwanda Isn't About College

John Gross Co-Editor-in-Chief When I sat down with Ms. Dorer to discuss her experience with Latin in Rwanda over the years, I had just finished breakfast. When I was done, it was time for lunch. Each question was first treated with historical context and then a backstory, and one story led to another, which led to a different one, which was just like that one time a few years ago. And I don’t blame her, because each story was, somehow, more captivating and more inspiring than the one before. I came in to talk to her after reading a shocking New York Times piece by Frank Bruni about high school students who travel to rural Africa on community service trips with the sole purpose of padding their college applications.  Bruni discusses the temporary nature of these service trips, turning to Michigan high school student Dylan Hernandez who noticed that many of his wealthy peers were taking “‘mission’ trips to Central America and Africa.” He knew of these trips because of social media, scrolling through pictures of friends posing with “‘some poor brown child aged 2 to 6 on their knees.’” Above the picture they’d write a message, something like “‘this cutie made it so hard to leave.’” Clearly, Hernandez’s peers were focused on college admissions committees scouring their social media; a candid photo with an underprivileged African would certainly help their cause. If truly a connection had been made, however, and it was “so hard to leave,” Bruni writes that they wouldn’t leave after “as little as a week of helping to repair some village’s crumbling school or library, to return to their comfortable homes and quite possibly write a college-application essay about how transformed they are.” College essay writing has such a big influence on these trips that, Bruni cites, one family “bought an orphanage in Botswana so their kids could have a project to write and talk about.” Although a spectator at countless Latin in Rwanda presentations at gathering, I realized after reading Bruni’s article that I didn’t know much about it at all. But I had a feeling it was nothing like the African “adventures” that Bruni described. “You can’t just come in and then leave” said Ms. Dorer of the Latin in Rwanda approach. “Therein lies the difference between our program and those that Bruni wrote about (which made me cringe). You can’t just go to camp for a week and say ‘see you’ at the end to all of the campers, without actually keeping in touch. It just reinforces their sense of abandonment.” The camp in Kigali is run by a Rwandan NGO division of WE-ACTx called WE-ACTx for Hope, which acts as a local initiative to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS. As such, nearly every participant is born HIV positive, being children of Tutsi women—an ethnic group in the African Great Lakes region—who were raped during the Rwandan genocide and purposefully infected with HIV. Most of the campers’ parents either perished from HIV-related causes or left, and in most cases, their friends won’t even touch them. “These kids can’t keep thinking that everyone they care about will abandon them, and that it is impossible for someone who isn’t “positive” to love them. If we say we’re going to come back to Rwanda, we will find a way to come back. That’s part of how the Latin in Rwanda summer program became a yearly trip since 2010.” Perhaps what most distinguishes Latin in Rwanda from other, more superficial programs is that the intention is not to blindly throw money at the camp in Kigali, essentially making it an American camp. Rather, the goal is to provide the skills and resources necessary for the camp to be self-sustained by Rwandan people and organizations in the future. “You can’t just come in and take over, you need to come in and see what’s needed.” It’s like the age old saying says: give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. With that mentality, you can “build relationships, none of which are temporary.” They are so long-lasting, in fact, that not only do Latin students keep in touch with Rwandan campers throughout the year, but three newborn children at the camp have been named after Latin students. One Latin in Rwanda alum, Michelle Santos, who is currently a sophomore at Yale University, had a particularly meaningful experience, largely driven by the fact that she met passionate, interesting people that were just like her. “Most of my interaction with the kids and counselors at the camp were just conversational.” said Santos. “I would ask questions and tell them about myself and slowly they would open up too.” Instead of pitying—which is all too common with wealthy volunteers of the type that Bruni described—Santos treated her Rwandan peers as just that: peers, friends just like any other. And despite cultural and geographical differences, the friendships she created are anything but temporary. Two years later, Santos still contacts them often via Facebook and WhatsApp. “Everyone there laughed and smiled every day,” said Santos, which put things into perspective for her. “They taught me that a positive attitude goes a really long way, and I think of them every time I feel like I can’t do something. And then I do it.”   Want to see a sneak-peak of Michelle’s experience for yourself? Check out this Latin in Rwanda 2016 video montage made by Latin alum Alexis Lopez.]]>