BTN LiveBIG: Indiana students bring literacy to Rwanda

Two thousand students attend the Kabwende Primary Center in Kinigi, Rwanda, where they study reading and math in English, rather than in French or Kinyarwanda, the country’s other official languages. Yet when Indiana University students first visited the school in 2009, one year after its switch to an English-based education, not one Rwandan child had an English-written book to call their own.

Not one.

Beyond that, the school did not have enough textbooks for each of its students, who are between the ages of 5 and 17, so each book was shared among four children and then locked up at the end of the school day. The Indiana students, along with one high schooler from New Jersey, arrived ready to change the situation.

The Americans were inaugural members of Books & Beyond, a cross-cultural literacy exchange between Kabwende, Indiana’s Global Village Living-Learning Center and the TEAM charter schools in Newark, N.J. The goal of the trip to Rwanda was to deliver 2,000 copies of “The World is Our Home,” a children’s book written by TEAM students and edited by IU students.

Books & Beyond has gone on to produce four subsequent volumes of “The World is Our Home” and deliver a total of 10,000 copies of the anthology to the Kabwende school.

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“We really want to be an exchange between the US students and the Rwandan students, and the Indiana and Newark students,” said IU senior Briana Petty, student director of Books & Beyond. “We want to open students’ minds and prepare them for a world that’s becoming more interconnected.”

The focus of Books & Beyond is to develop models for teaching and learning across cultures. The secondary goal is to develop communication and understanding among students from different backgrounds in an effort to promote global citizenship.

Visionary Nancy Uslan founded the project in 2006 by bringing the three schools together to form the collaborative, tripod-structured partnership. Two years later, Ali Nagle and Lauren Caldarera co-founded the educational portion of the program and named it Books and Beyond.

Since its founding, nearly 300 IU students and more than 100 TEAM students have participated in the program. A total of 40 students have traveled to Rwanda.

As the name implies, Books & Beyond is about more than delivering books. In Newark, where only nine percent of the population has attended college, the TEAM students in the program get a first-hand look at the collegiate experience. Not only do they work with IU students to write “The World is Our Home” stories, but once a year they travel to Bloomington to meet their counterparts and experience campus life.

“They’re taught from a very young age the importance of going to college, so it’s always on their mind,” Petty said. “They’re really enthusiastic and ask a lot of questions.”

In addition to the teaching, editing and mentoring, the IU students – who by living in the Global Village LLC residence hall have indicated their interest in learning about foreign cultures and languages – develop a plethora of professional skills that will benefit them after college, ranging from fundraising and grant writing to videography and marketing. They also help the Rwandan teachers grasp the English language by writing pen pal letters to them.

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In Rwanda, the Kabwende students continue to benefit from “The World is Our Home.” As the children’s English has improved, they have been able to contribute stories to later volumes of the anthology.

Hundreds of students have also taken advantage of the Books & Beyond Holiday Camp, an English literacy camp taught at Kabwende by IU and TEAM students. Now in its third year, the camp is projected to have 300 Rwandan students participate this summer.

On the same trip, the American students will deliver 2,000 copies of the sixth volume of “The World is Our Home.”

The experience will be transformational, says IU senior Aaricka Washington. Two summers ago, she traveled to Rwanda with Books & beyond, and what stuck out the most to her was the passion she saw in the Kabwende children.

“They were hungry for learning like I’ve never seen before,” Washington said. “We developed a bond with them and a relationship with them that we’ll always have.”

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To learn more about Books & Beyond, visit http://booksnbeyond.wordpress.com

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