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Advancing Skills at the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology in Rwanda

a group of women in a row outside

Working on a project with some of the girls from GGAST.

As part of Autodesk’s financial services team, I spend my days sourcing and executing contracts for multiple business groups. But it was my home life that inspired me to take the opportunity last year to do pro bono work with the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology (GGAST) in Rwanda. I have two teenage daughters about the same age as the students at GGAST, and I’ve learned as much from parenting them as I have working at Autodesk. So  I leaped at the opportunity to bring some of my experience from home into my professional life.

The combined pro bono team from Adobe and Autodesk.

I arrived in Rwanda last December and met the rest of the pro bono team I’d be working with at GGAST. This international crew of Autodesk and Adobe volunteers included people from Canada, India, France, England, and the US, as well as a Rwandan expat.

Learn more about pro bono programs at Autodesk.

We spent our first day touring the capital city of Kigali, marveled at how clean it was, and learned that the residents hold a community clean up one Sunday per month. We also visited the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, which offers a panoply of free classes in literacy, sewing, English, women’s rights, health, and nutrition, as well as a library with afternoon programming for children. It made me realize how much Rwanda could teach us about increasing community involvement and promoting the value of education.

The next day we headed to GGAST, where we would spend most of our remaining time in Rwanda. Located an hour south of Kigali in the Bugesera District, GGAST is an upper-secondary girls’ boarding school focusing on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), with an unwavering commitment to excellence and innovation in nurturing students to become national leaders. However, meeting that high bar is a challenge.  Secondary school capacity in Rwanda is limited,  so only the girls with the highest test scores are offered seats. Even a bright girl who is qualified to attend may face obstacles like household responsibilities, lack of family support, and safety concerns. As a result, even though 97% of Rwandan girls go to primary school, less than 34% attend upper secondary school, and only 8% graduate. Our goal as a team was to do our part in helping to raise that number.

Some of the teachers from GGAST.

We spent our first few days working exclusively with teachers. Many of them came from elsewhere in Rwanda and even other African countries to participate in our workshops, and their dedication to teaching was awe-inspiring. Our mission was to help further their design, presentation, and computational thinking skills. To do that, we put on workshops about using Autodesk Forge for 3D printing of solar systems, creating Micro:Bits programs to help with community challenges, website design, learning resources, and graphic design. Adobe and Autodesk also installed and donated Adobe Creative Cloud and Autodesk Fusion360 licenses for the school.

The following week, when the students joined us, we turned the classrooms over to the teachers and saw firsthand how well they can inspire a classroom. It was amazing to see how excited the students were about being back in the classroom. They had actually returned from their summer break to attend our trainings! We spent time learning their stories, and found that many of them come from large, extended families that revere the opportunity to attend an elite boarding school. In fact, GGAST receives 500 applications each year, but accepts only 90, and gives 98% of them a full scholarship. Education is obviously a central part of the students’ identity, and they prize the opportunity GGAST gives them, because they clearly understand that they represent the future of Rwanda and that the success of their country relies on them.

A single red rose placed at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

One afternoon we drove to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the burial site for over 250,000 victims of the horrific 1994 genocide between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. We were each handed a single red rose as we entered the main courtyard and asked to honor a moment of silence as we each set a rose upon one of the mass graves.  This was the most profound and touching experience I had on this journey, as it showed me how far the Rwandan people have come in 25 years. The bereaved join together here to memorialize their past and prevent it from happening again through education and forgiveness.

Read about another recent Autodesk pro bono trip to Senegal.

I went to Rwanda to teach, but ultimately, I learned so much more from the people of Rwanda than I could ever have taught. Their kindness and hospitality, emphasis on education, and ability to forgive were true testaments of the power of people to move on from the harshest circumstances. I am blessed to work for a company like Autodesk that provides its employees with these types of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Skyline view of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city.

Since our return from Rwanda in December, the whole group (volunteers, teachers, and students) has kept in touch via email and social channels. I am so happy that technology helps us to connect with our diverse group and our new friends in Rwanda.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded me once again of the strength and resiliency of the Rwandan people. My Rwandan friends at GGAST are also devising new methods to teach and learn during this global emergency, just as we are in the US. Even as I shelter in place and work and parent from home in Northern California, the pro bono team is meeting remotely to host additional online tutorial sessions for the teachers in Rwanda and to exchange ideas and new learnings among ourselves. It is humbling and warming to continue this innovation  in a time of need. We plan to continue to share resources, ideas, and knowledge during this time and beyond.