Winter Sports School grad helps launch environmental program in Rwanda
Park Record Intern
Seven years ago, Katie Bernhard was in an 11th grade history class at the Winter Sports School, learning about Sub-Saharan Africa and wondering if she would ever have the chance to visit that continent. A week ago, she arrived back in Park City after spending a year in Rwanda.
Bernhard has spent the last year on a fellowship with the Princeton in Africa program, which pairs candidates, like Bernhard, with partner organizations that can use their skills.
She departed on the trip just after graduating magna cum laude from Dartmouth College with a degree in Environmental Studies and was matched with The Rwanda School Project as an environmental consultant for their developing environmental science program at the Rwamagana Lutheran School. Bernhard said much of the project had to be built from the ground up.
“A big part of it was just building the most basic level of environmental awareness at the school,” she said. “It was kind of getting everyone on board with what is environmental science, why it is important, what is sustainability, and why that is important.”
Bernhard spent her days helping to develop a curriculum for the new program, running the school’s environmental club and assisting the school in a variety of ways.
“I was kind of a jack-of-all-trades,” she said. “I started an after-school program for university and higher education prep, I taught a computer class and did a bunch of other jobs around the school, in addition to building the environmental science program.”
The Rwanda School Project was started in 2005 by Robin Strickler, who was Bernhard’s supervisor in Rwanda. In 2010, the group founded The Rwamagana Lutheran School with a focus on teaching three specific principles: social sustainability, economic sustainability and environmental sustainability.
According to Bernhard, Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa, with 12 million people living in an area roughly the size of Maryland, which makes environmental issues critical.
“Many (Rwandans) are using subsistence agriculture, so everybody needs land. Everybody needs to grow their crops, but approximately 14 percent of annual agriculture yields are lost to soil erosion because it is so hilly.”
The country is also known for 1994 genocide of one million Rwandan citizens, which Bernhard said is a wound the country is still healing from, but not in the way that many people think.
“The narrative surrounding Rwandan history, particularly the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, is beginning to change,” she said. “It’s still difficult and people are still recovering, but what’s amazing about Rwanda is the way that people are moving forward. When people think of Rwanda they still think about genocide and I don’t think it does justice to how far the country has actually come.”
Bernhard’s journey to Rwanda started at the Winter Sports School and gained momentum at Dartmouth. During her junior year, she studied abroad in Morocco in Northern Africa and was exposed to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that further spiked her interest in African development.
“(Studying in Morocco) was really fantastic and for me it really felt like the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “We visited some really interesting NGOs in the city of Fez, and you could see that they really weren’t doing what they needed to be doing. They weren’t looking at local context. They were just applying broad prescription solutions to very local issues and so the people in the area weren’t getting the assistance they needed. It got me thinking about how a non-profit organization, or how an NGO, works in the communities that they are supposed to serve and I wanted to see how that played out in other parts of the world, too.”
When Bernhard first arrived in Rwanda, she lived alone and didn’t speak the local language, Kinyarwanda, but she soon adjusted to life in Sub-Saharan Africa. She spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and went rock climbing throughout the region. By the time she left, Bernhard said the school community was close-knit and felt like her family.
“It was really difficult to leave, not just the place, but also the people. I made a lot of really close friends there and met a lot of wonderful people,” she said.
Bernhard is the second Princeton in Africa Fellow to work with the project, and another one will head to Rwanda in August. The goal is for the environmental program to be implemented by 2018.
Bernhard will spend the next few months prepping to take the Law School Entrance Exam and the GRE test, as she is thinking of pursuing a career in international environmental law.
Now that she’s home, Bernhard has a little time to reflect on how Park City helped her get to Rwanda and back.
“If you grow up in Park City you really get a sense of exploration,” she said. “I’ve been inspired by so many people I’ve met here to expand my range. Also, people are really passionate about the environment here. It’s exciting coming back to a place where the environmental field is quite robust and there are conflicts with land and resources. It’s something that people really care about a lot and it’s exciting to me.”
To see the blog that Bernhard created for the Rwamagana Lutheran School Environmental Club visit https://rlsenvironmentalclub.wordpress.com and for more information about the project visit http://rwandaschoolproject.org
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