Angelique Mugabekazi’s study abroad experience this summer in Uganda and Rwanda will offer more than international travel and hands-on learning in peace and conflict studies. It will allow her to confront a painful past.
The recipient of a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and a scholarship from the SIT Study Abroad program, Mugabekazi will be returning to her native Rwanda, a country she fled as a preschooler during the genocide of 1994, when nearly 1 million people were murdered in the span of 100 days. Mugabekazi says her mother, younger brother and uncle were killed in the atrocities.
“I want to face my fears,” says Mugabekazi, a junior who is majoring in sociology with a peace and conflict studies minor.
The six-credit program she’s enrolled is run by Brattleboro, Vt.-based SIT, formerly known as the School for International Training. Mugabekazi and nine other students from other colleges and universities will spend time in both Uganda and Rwanda and live with host families in each country. They will study the causes of conflict, examine the impact of war and genocide on society and visit cultural and historic sites, including Rwanda’s genocide memorial.
Assoc. Prof. Christopher Carlsmith, adviser in the Office of Undergraduate Fellowships, and Fern MacKinnon, manager of the Office of Study Abroad and International Experiences, worked with Mugabekazi on the scholarship applications. Other UMass Lowell students have received Gilman Scholarships in the past, but Mugabekazi was the only one to get one this summer. The Gilman Scholarships are sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and awarded to undergraduates who would otherwise not be able to study overseas due to financial constraints. Likewise, the SIT scholarships are intended to make study abroad possible for students who otherwise couldn’t afford it.
“With Angelique’s background, this program is certainly a great fit,” Carlsmith says.
It will be Mugabekazi’s first return visit to her Central African homeland, a country that is slightly smaller than the state of Maryland. The eighth of 10 children, she lived a peripatetic existence after leaving Rwanda with her father and siblings, moving among refugee camps and crowded apartments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Burundi and Zambia. Her father, a civil engineer, died before the family could leave Africa. The U.S. government granted Mugabekazi and several family members refugee status and in November 2000, they arrived in Massachusetts, settling first in Dorchester before eventually moving to Lowell.
Originally planning to study nursing when she enrolled at Middlesex Community College, Mugabekazi realized over time that a science-related career was not her calling. Through her church, she met a Rwandan woman who had recently arrived in Lowell and needed help getting settled. Mugabekazi acted as a translator and an advocate for the woman and her four children, getting them to medical appointments and helping with immigration documents. It was a role she embraced.
She transferred to UMass Lowell in September 2011 with plans to pursue a career with an international focus. After hearing guest speakers in a human rights class talk about helping Congolese women impacted by war, she was inspired to return to the land that she had fled.
“When we had those speakers, it made me think it’s OK to go back. I can learn hands-on from the people who are there,” she says.
Looking ahead, Mugabekazi would like to pursue a master’s degree in peace studies and is thinking about joining the Peace Corps. In addition to her coursework, she is involved with the African Student Collaboration and the Peace and Conflict Undergraduate Club on campus. The summer program will give her an opportunity to apply what she has learned so far to real-world problems.
“Through study abroad, our focus is to complement the academic offerings available to our student. Angelique’s participation in the SIT program this summer is an example of how study abroad experience can not only enrich academic but also personal goals,” says MacKinnon of the study abroad office.
For Mugabekazi it will likely be an emotional reunion with her homeland. She’d like to visit her childhood home, a place where happy memories of her family collide with recollections of the terror of war; where remembrances of birthday parties intersect with memories of hiding under a mattress for safety. Still, she feels compelled to return.
“I just can’t sit here,” she says. “People can change things. They don’t have to live with conflict every day of their lives. When organizations push, governments will listen.”