Global Connections: Forging a Partnership in Rwanda


One of three key tenets in Penn President Amy Gutmann’s Penn Compact 2020, "Impact" captures University-wide efforts to engage "locally, nationally and globally to bring the benefits of Penn’s research, teaching and service to individuals and communities at home and around the world." Engineers, at heart problem-solvers, are perhaps best poised to do so as they apply their unique skillsets to bring about solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

When Michale Goldberger (EE'16) applied to Penn’s International Internship Program for an opening at the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology in Rwanda, she had a specific goal: to find out firsthand about life in the developing world and how she could align her skills to both be a role model for women and find out what problems are most in need of engineering solutions. Goldberger, along with Rebecca Baumher (CIS'16), spent a busy two months at the upper-secondary boarding school, helping students to launch interest groups for robotics and alternative energy, prepping them for the SAT exam and advising them on college essays. Their stay wasn’t all work––they also bonded with their peers over a shared love of Facebook and American movies. In exchange they received a crash course in African pop culture.

"The young women at Gashora are awesome," Goldberger says.

Collaborative Solutions

Wanting to assess directly how Penn could make the biggest impact on Gashora, a group of University faculty, staff and students first visited the school last spring. From those conversations emerged a consensus to implement a project to make Gashora less dependent on Rwanda’s overburdened energy grid, which cannot always support the school’s computer lab. As a result, next spring this collaboration will integrate a solar energy project into a Penn class to be taught by Jorge Santiago-Aviles, associate professor in Electrical and Systems Engineering. Following the class, a team of more than a dozen students from Penn and the Agnes Irwin School, a private preparatory school for girls and young women located in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, plan to travel to Rwanda to implement it.

In addition to the onsite activities, the collaboration has resulted in an online mentoring program in which 20 Penn students email regularly with their peers at Gashora. Future plans include the possible implementation of a post-graduate fellowship for one to two Penn students to spend one year at Gashora following graduation. Fellows would devote their time assisting with SAT prep and general awareness about college in the U.S., along with overseeing Penn’s onsite projects.

Goldberger is one of the first students to travel to Rwanda to engage in the partnership between Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and Gashora. This multifaceted initiative is the first such international program at Penn to focus on women, according to Michele Grab, director of the Advancing Women in Engineering Program at Penn Engineering.

“It reflects what our students are telling us. They want more international opportunities, particularly for women,” Grab notes.

“Gashora’s goals line up with our School’s educational mission and our values, as well as our outreach to girls and women for engineering and our global service agenda,” says Joseph S. Sun, vice dean for academic affairs and director of the Office of Academic Programs at Penn Engineering. “They are an excellent example of an all-female school that wants to effect change.”

New Perspectives

What impressed Goldberger the most was the Gashora students’ dedication to improving their circumstances in ways both big and small. Though it has been 20 years and these students were not yet born, the 1994 genocide that claimed 1 million lives still has a lasting and strong impact on Rwanda as a nation. The entire school, for example, spends the last Saturday of each month doing community service, and its students are determined to earn college degrees overseas and bring their knowledge back home in order to improve Rwanda’s future.

“It was amazing to hear how they want to change their country and build it up; they are so devoted,” Goldberger says. “It was inspiring. Science and engineering are difficult fields no matter where you are being educated. In a country facing so many challenges, you have all of these women who are willing to work as hard as they can to improve their country in
tangible ways.”
Beth A. Winkelstein, associate dean for undergraduate education and a professor in Bioengineering, noted that the Gashora program gives Penn students a critical, real-world view of what it’s like to collaborate at the international level.

“The engineers of today need to be able to understand the global setting,” Winkelstein says. “The African experience is very different from many of our students’ perspectives. When they go through design and engineering projects at Penn, and we tell them about the challenges that engineers face when abroad, it’s very different for them to think they understand what those challenges mean and to actually experience it.”

Finding Inspiration

For Gashora, the connection to Penn offers a way tobroaden its intensive curriculum beyond the borders of Rwanda, according to Peter Thorp, executive director of the U.S.-based Rwanda Girls Initiative, which runs the school in conjunction with the Rwandan government. Situated in a rural area, the school reflects an ongoing commitment to improving conditions for women. Rwanda boasts the only parliament in the world with majority female representation—nearly two in three lawmakers are women—yet just 13 percent of its young women attend secondary school. Gashora’s first class of 90 students graduated last year, with about one in three attending top schools in the U.S. and Canada, including a student who is part of Penn’s Class of 2018.

“The pairing with women in engineering gives our students access to role models and advice from young women at Penn who are a few steps ahead of them in the process, but following the same path,” Thorp says. “It’s a pragmatic resource, but more importantly, an inspirational connection that’s already had a profound impact on our school.”

As Goldberger resumes her regular schedule of classes and campus activities, she is still processing her Rwandan experience and believes it will inform coming decisions about her future.

“I’m trying to figure out exactly what I want to do,” Goldberger says. “I learned so much about many different kinds of people and how best to interact with them. It concerns me that we have countries in the world that get forgotten. It made me feel passionately that I can work in alternative energy and address this very global need.”

View the original article in Penn Engineering magazine "Global Connections" by Robert DiGiacomo.

Return to News Features