John Tolley, January 25, 2019
If you ask Vera Marinova, director of the Books and Beyond at Indiana University, what the program is all about, she could tell you about the publication of the annual literary anthology. Or, she could expound on pedagogical training workshops they provide for teachers in Rwanda. Or, how they've helped build playgrounds and a library for schoolchildren. But, for Marinova, the Books and Beyond program's mission is much more succinct.
"It is about empowerment through education," notes Marinova, who is also the associate director of IU's Global Living-Learning Community. "I often tell my students, when you look at our organization, I want you to understand that not a single objective and not a single individual in the organization is what makes things happen. It is all of us working together to see that empowerment happens in the communities that we work with so that eventually we will not be needed there."
That empowerment comes from the connections that Books and Beyond forges between primary school students in Rwanda and in Bloomington as well as with the IU student-residents of the Global Village who serve in various roles such as writing instructors, editors, designers, PR agents, community evaluators, documentarians, culture and communications representatives, and fundraisers for the service-learning project.
Now in its tenth year, Books and Beyond, an initiative of the College of Arts and Sciences at IU, grew out of a simple desire to help combat the "book famine" plaguing children in Rwanda. The idea was that students in the US could collect and donate books to their peers in Rwanda and in so doing each group could learn a bit more of the other's culture.
"The program was initially started to bring books to that country, but it has expanded into a much bigger program now," explains Jesse Jones, an IU senior and kinesthetics teacher with Books and Beyond. "It's a lot of cross-cultural learning. The [primary school] students learn from us, and we learn from the people who we interact with in Rwanda through teaching and community activities."
One hallmark of Books and Beyond is the publication of an annual literary anthology written by the primary school students in the US and Rwanda. The stories included in each volume of The World is our Home foster a deepened understanding of other cultures while expanding students' literary knowledge. For their part, IU students lead workshops at home in Bloomington and abroad during their annual summer trip to Rwanda in order to help the children grow their voices and develop their storytelling skills. The anthology is distributed to all involved in addition to being sold in order to fund future endeavors.
As Marinova explains, working with and returning to a single community year after year allows the Book and Beyond volunteers and staff the opportunity to become familiar with its people and needs. The group assesses those needs against the resources that they have available.
In 2017, Books and Beyond, in conjunction with IU librarians, constructed the first dedicated library in the Kabwende Primary School, which is an extraordinary feature of a rural school in Rwanda. They've also partnered with IU's Play360 - a design initiative featured in a 2015 LiveBIG feature - to construct a playground for the school.
Marinova is quick to note that while Books and Beyond is a service-learning trip, it isn't merely an exercise in charity for the IU students involved. Rather, it is a rich exchange that sees value added for all parties involved, often more so for the Hoosiers.
"They gain more from this experience than the Rwandan kids," Marinova remarks. "We all benefit from this interaction together. It is not that the students in Rwanda only benefit from the books or the experience. And it is not that our students only benefit from the cross-cultural experience of that travel abroad. We all benefit from that almost symbiotic relationship. We need one another to grow. That's the benefit for all of us."