West describes the darkness and light of her trip in her global independent study research paper
Aimee LaBrie
Student Suzanne West and her son, Darren, traveled to Rwanda for 12 days in June.

Student Suzanne West and her son, Darren, traveled to Rwanda for 12 days in June.

Like many orphaned children in Rwanda, Dieudone had never tasted milk. Even the concept seemed as impossible as recovering the two parents he lost at an early age—one to alcoholism, the other who abandoned him. So when Suzanne West and her son, Darren, brought a pregnant cow to his village, he and the other school children were jumping up and down with excitement. “Riding into the schoolyard in a truck with the cow, Darren was greeted by the entire school. They sang and danced to traditional Rwandan songs,” West writes of the experience.   

West describes this moment and other darker ones in her global independent study research paper “Rwanda: Bearing Witness, Delivering Hope.” Her essay grew directly from her twelve days in Rwanda in June; a trip she just happened to mention during a meeting with Dr. Boris Vilic, Dean of the College of Continuing Studies at Rider University. Once he learned about her travel plans, Vilic suggested that it could make a very compelling global independent project. He also put her in contact with Dr. Roberta Fiske-Rusciano to discuss ways to approach it. 

“I was concerned that I would find it difficult to articulate the experience, because I knew I would be seeing extreme poverty and children in distress.”  She found some comfort during her meeting with Dr. Fiske-Rusciano. “She advised me to just stay in the moment; to listen, pay attention, and to keep notes.  She said, ‘When you come back, we will sit down and talk about your experiences. Don’t worry about it until then — just experience it.’ And so that’s what I did.”

She made the sojourn with her 10-year-old son, Darren, who had spent his school year raising money for Love 41, an online non-profit organization that sends 100 percent of its donations directly to projects for Rwanda. He was also aware of the orphans in part because the West family was sponsoring Dieudone.   

“We wanted Darren to see beyond his day to day world; to learn empathy and be compassionate towards people around the world.” Both West and her son wrote about the experience in their shared blog. “We wanted him to understand that the world is much bigger than him, and that even the small things you can do can make a difference.”  

When Dieudone and Darren finally met, there was an instant connection. “There was a language barrier, but that didn’t seem to matter,” West explains.  

And though the trip was a success, when she returned to the States, West had a difficult time putting into words everything she had seen and experienced. She again met with Fiske-Rusciano. “The stories are so powerful that it was hard for me to wrap my head around them. These are people who are surviving day to day, and who don’t know if they will have anything to eat tomorrow. And it’s not just one child, it’s thousands.”   

Fiske-Rusciano advised West to just tell the story—one moment at a time, as clearly and succinctly as possible.  She understood immediately the difficulty her student faced. “Ms. West's study was very challenging as it involved traveling to Rwanda and working in a village with all ages, including her ten year old son. As a result, her contacts and work include children and adults whose memories of this holocaust or its aftermath make up the bulk of the information, telling the stories of those who did not survive. That kind of research involves a special responsibility to survivors, victims, and to the world's body of knowledge of Rwandan history, present conditions, and how they see themselves now and in the future.”

“It was really hard to write that paper, and if I hadn’t been working with Dr. Fiske-Rusciano, if I hadn’t had a deadline and a study project to do, I never would have had the strength to articulate it,” West says.  “The independent study allowed me the chance to describe this experience in a way that hopefully makes it real for other students like me who want to make a difference in the world, one child at a time.” 

At her professor’s request, West agreed to speak to students who are just starting to think about their own research projects during global studies week in April. Coincidentally, she’ll be giving her thoughts about the process around the time of the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.  Dr. Fiske-Rusciano explains the importance of West sharing her experience.  “Students and faculty will learn from her presentation—how close this history is to us and how simply our decisions can make a difference in human lives.”

Leaving Rwanda after twelve days was a painful process for everyone. West describes her son’s reaction. “When Darren had to say goodbye to Dieudone, he was crying so much that he was shaking.  He said, ‘I don’t understand why my heart hurts so much.” I told him, ‘It’s because you opened it.’” 

West and Darren will return in 2015 with other children who have become interested in raising money for the organization. In the meantime, the children have Hope, the pregnant cow who now supplies them with milk and whose baby calf they have already christened “Faith.”