RGI Blog

Alumna Profile: Positive Journey Toward Progress

The following post is written by Gashora Girls Academy alumna, Hillarie Uwamahoro, GGAST Class of 2014.  She is currently studying at Earth University in Costa Rica.


A dream that can bring life changing opportunities turns into a reality when a person takes one step forward. A girl that was raised without hope ultimately found joy that dignified her destination. That girl today faces the world differently and has discovered crucial tools that lift her up in the moments of sorrow to encourage herself and others.

The last twenty-three years has been a period of discovery.  I have learned who I was, who I am now and what I want to become. I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1995, one year after the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. During that period, my country, Rwanda, was still on the journey to bring back peace and unity ruined during the Rwandan Genocide. Due to the security issues, my family went to DRC as refugees in July of 1994, where they stayed until November of 1996. When leaving Rwanda, my mother was pregnant with me. She had to walk from the Northern Province of Rwanda to DRC carrying a baby in her womb. The journey was extremely long, and due to political instability, was without means of public transportation.

I was born in February 1995, and I started facing health problems such as diarrhea and Pneumonia because of poor hygiene. Fortunately, I survived since we returned to Rwanda in November 1996. Upon returning to Rwanda, my parents had to start from scratch because they didn´t have a job and our assets had been damaged. They built their future like any other person who faces struggles and work persistently to overcome them.

When I was 5 years old, they took me to a primary school, where I would walk 6 km. I faced difficult moments as a young girl because I did not have enough school kits. My siblings and I had very tough and emotional lives during that season. Food was a valuable and precious thing for my family to have. I never believed that it would be possible for me to go for higher studies because of the lack of financial resources.  My father got a driving job and my mother dedicated herself in subsistence farming. That is how my parents started thriving slowly. Despite the struggles we had reestablishing our lives, I was academically strong and I was accepted to Gashora Girls Academy.  At Gashora I received educational support and indispensable opportunities.   I met incredible colleagues and teachers who encouraged me. I began believing that there is no limit to embrace my goals and strive for my future. My objective had always been pursuing agricultural studies to ensure that hunger and poverty were not found in my community. My region only practices farming for family consumption because of lack of sustainable skills on how to improve agricultural productivity and turn it into a big source of income. Furthermore, there are many young girls of my generation who didn´t get the opportunities to go for higher studies, and they ended up having unplanned pregnancies. However, there are some other youth who don´t want to get involved in agricultural activities because of ignorance and negative attitude towards farming.

Many youths believe that agriculture is meant for uneducated people because they grew up seeing uneducated farmers in the community. The main reason behind all these challenges is the history that Rwanda had in the past.

In 2015 I experienced a life changing opportunity when I was admitted to pursue Agriculture Sciences at EARTH University in Costa Rica where I received a scholarship from the Howard Buffett Foundation. I was the first girl to study outside of Rwanda in my community!

While at EARTH I began experiencing agriculture technical skills especially in soil science and I was strongly motivated by soil management techniques to increase productivity.   I had never seen these techniques being applied in my region. In 2018 I worked with Precision Agriculture Center (CAP) here in Costa Rica for six weeks learning new mapping technologies for soil precision management in order to optimize soil development and productivity. I also pursued an internship at Tuskegee University from August to December 2018, where I had an educative and bold experience conducting research from the Soil Chemistry Laboratory. I acquired scientific skills on carbon decomposition in soils and professional working ethics. In addition, I developed my enthusiasm towards Soil Sciences from the university professors, past and present. For example, I was inspired by the former president of Tuskegee University, an educator and author, Dr. Booker T. Washington, whose message says: “if you want to lift yourself up lift up someone else”. From that quote I learned that nothing is impossible in all aspects of life; only that we need to have self-esteem and encourage each other to move forward without leaving anyone behind. It does not matter how downtrodden we are; all we need is a positive attitude to achieve big accomplishments.

Because of this exposure, I started having many crucial viewpoints on upgrading my career in order to play a big role in transforming the economy of my region and people´s perspectives. I can firmly say that I have been on a positive journey towards progress because I am no longer a slave of poverty. I used to think before that poverty is equal to not having money, but now I define poverty as a status of not having hope and concrete ideas. I believe that my dream of being among agricultural scientists in Rwanda is yet to come, and once achieved I will do all it is required to contribute to the transformation of my village.

If youth would work hand in hand and creatively, our history would be turned marvelously because the future is US. It is our responsibility to foster positive changes that improve the standard of living for the people in Rwanda.

In summary, my struggle and success has made who I am today and the best is yet to come. My eyes are now facing the stars in pursuing a graduate degree in order to professionally prepare myself as an agent of change in soil science. Thus, I shouldn’t allow my past to define me but instead use my present to overcome the past in order to build an impactful future.

Positive attitude wins!

  • Agriculture
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It is an exciting time at Gashora Girls Academy.  Last May, our inaugural graduating class of 2013 began to graduate from university's around the world!  We have recently hired 5 of these amazing alumnae to work at GGAST. 

We sat down with three of these young women to talk about their time at Gashora and how they feel being back. 

Meet Elvanie  who works as GGAST's Career Development and University Advisor, Mado who is our Nutritionist and Olive who is our VAC (Value Added Center) Manager!


Would you introduce yourself to everyone?

Elvanie:  I am Elvanie, at GGAST I studied Mathematics, Physics and Computer Science (MPC). I liked most of my combination


Elvanie: Career Development and University Advisor

subjects but I especially enjoyed my computer classes. During my stay at GGAST I was involved in some extracurricular activities including the volleyball team, modeling and part traditional dance.  I went to Adventist University of Central Africa and studied Networks and Communication systems.  I am currently supporting the current students and alumnae with career development and university advising.

Mado: I am Marie de Dieu (Mado), my combination was Physics, Chemistry, and Biology (PCB). Besides academics, I enjoyed my stay in Gashora because of the diverse extracurricular activities; however, my favorite was Basketball. I went to the University of Rwanda and got my degree in Nutrition and Dietics.  I am currently working as school Nutritionist and leadership development coordinator at GGAST.

Olive: My name is Olive and I studied PCB (Physics, Chemistry and Biology) at GGAST. I used to play volleyball as my extracurricular and I was Dorm Captain prefect.  I studied Crop Production at the University of Rwanda. I am currently the VAC Manager at GGAST.


-What have you done since you graduated from Gashora?


Elvanie:  After graduating from Gashora, I immediately attended Adventist University of Central Africa (AUCA) in Rwanda where I pursued a degree in Networks and Communication Systems. AUCA exposed me to real life experience due to their project-based learning system. 

      Mado: Gashora Nutrionist

Mado: After graduating from Gashora served as the assistant Basketball Coach during my gap year. I then enrolled at the University of Rwanda College of Medicine and Health Sciences and graduated November 2nd with a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics.  In my second year at university, I began working for the Global Give Back Circle as a Program Coordinator. The program put emphasis on developing leadership skills, mentorship, and giving back.  I also had the opportunity to engage in research done at the University.  I was part of evaluating programs like Integrated Nutrition and WASH Activities. My friends and I initiated a Public Health Students Association where I was the Project Manager with the main goal of identifying community nutrition related problems and providing solutions, such as building kitchen gardens and carrying out nutrition educational sessions to raise the awareness. 

Olive: After Graduating from Gashora, I had a temporary job teaching nursery students at BUGESHI Primary and Nursery school.  the next fall I joined the University of Rwanda College of Agriculture Animal Sciences and Veterinary Medicine where I received a Bachelor Degree in Crop Production. In my 3rd year of the university I was Vice Class Representative, and my 4th year I managed to be Deputy Guild President.


-How did Gashora prepare you for life beyond Gashora?


Elvanie:  Gashora helped build confidence within me. Through various presentations, my communication skills went on developing and spread in everything I undertook. Gashora also taught me how to search for various opportunities available. With this skill, I was able to find job opportunities while I was still a university student.  Last but not least, Gashora taught me how to be responsible and accountable for my life decisions, which is a skill that is very important in the outside world.

Mado: To be honest I do not know what I could have done with all the fear and self-doubt which were my identity before joining Gashora. Coming from a school which we were being led out of fear and could not have self-advocacy. It was a huge gift to be in Gashora where students lead the school and encouraged to speak out and let their voice be heard. As a result, I developed integrity, self-awareness, confidence, and empathy. I have been able to stand out and to lead others by paying attention to their suggestions, opinions, and synergy to bring a positive change.

Olive: Gashora empowered me with the leadership skills that helped me to be a good leader at the University of Rwanda where I was Deputy Guild president in charge of Academics. This helps me to be self-motivated and courageous in whatever I do.


-Why did you decide to come back to work here?


Elvanie:  Working in Gashora is one of my biggest dream coming true. I have always wanted to give back to the community that made me who I am, but most especially I wanted to participate and get involved in girls’ education and development. Being a girl, I know how important girls’ education is and I would like to help girls know their worth and help them become important people in the future. I feel so much joy to be able to work with them through this journey of making so many decisions in a little time, be able to exploit the available opportunities and make use their time. As a career development and university advisor, I also want to equip girls with skills that will help them shine in the outside competitive world.

Mado:  Gashora has been my home and I feel like I have never left Gashora.  I had been longing to work in a diverse environment and excited to be here. 

Olive: It was my privilege to work here at Gashora and my pleasure to put all the efforts and knowledge to improve my lovely famous high school because nothing better than seeing GGAST shining.


-What are your favorite things about Gashora/things you missed?  -What is one of your favorite Gashora memories?


Elvanie:  The first thing I missed the most about Gashora is its supportive environment. While I was in Gashora, I knew that I would always receive support from the administration, the teachers and my friends.  When I graduated and entered the outside world all the support flew away. I had to do everything on my own. My best memories from Gashora were the talent shows held at the school. When I was a student at Gashora, I was a member of both the fashion club  and the traditional dance troop, which are some of the best memories of my life.

Mado: The things I missed about Gashora were the different activities, such as the bonfire, water balloon fights, capture the flag, and basketball games, that were filled with laughter and were true moments of happiness. Those were the moments when Gashora sisterhood was at its maximum. The moments that my brain keep under the title of my "favorite memory's" are the Intramural Competitions. These competitions brought all the students into three different teams, and we would play different games like basketball, football and volleyball. Words of encouragement were always shouted out loud for everyone.

Olive: Farm Manager

Olive: One of Gashora memories I won’t forget is affection and passionate of the staff and the founders of this school towards every student at Gashora.


-What is it like being back on campus as a staff?


Elvanie:  It is nostalgic. Whenever I look around the campus, I recall all the moments I spent here when I was a student. However, I am no longer a student but a staff member. I feel the urge of sharing my experience with my younger sisters, contribute to their well-being, and guide them through this path to their academic success as well as their career goals.

Mado: Once alumna and now back on campus as a staff was not something that I would easily capture and imagine.  Being a staff on campus helps me understand the reason behind decisions that were and are taken. I can, now, understand the way members of the staff feel when important decision are being made. I feel like a mediator, because I can understand the feeling of both students and the staff, with that I am able to know what would be best for the two parties.


This month of April, the Flame of Remembrance ("Urumuri Rutazima" - the unquenching flame ) will be lit for the duration of 100 days. This will mark the beginning of the remembrance of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. The Flame of Remembrance is a symbol of courage and resilience of all Rwandans, and the unquenching persistence towards peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.  

This month, we stand in remembrance with our Gashora students, families and staff who are playing a critical role in paving the future for a prosperous country for all Rwandans. 

Below is an essay written by one of our 2013 Gashora Girls Academy graduates who has recently returned to Rwanda to work at GGAST.


Hope and Compassion- Celeste Dushime

At 2PM on April 7th 2015, I was sobbing on a bench in the middle of the Yale Campus. I had been organizing the Genocide Commemoration for a week and had made small posters with facts about the 1994 Genocide: how many people died, how many people were infected with AIDS, etc. However, I had not accounted for the April wind or my classmates’ indifference. As students walked around with no recognition of the tragedy that had started that day two decades earlier, the wind blew away my posters confronting me with the erasure of our pain. I called my mother, crying while I realized the weight of who I was and where I was. I was a Rwandan sitting on a campus that educated both Bill Clinton and Samantha Powers,two  people who could have stopped the genocide but didn’t.

I was reminded of a conversation two days earlier as my mother listened to my outrage and my tears about how “they didn’t care about our deaths.” In that moment, the genocide was my story, it was my senseless death, it was my blood that was spilled for no reason. As my parents listened, as I gained the ability to own a history I hadn’t experienced, I thought about what it meant to have been born in Rwanda after the genocide. I am not the only one who experiences this complicated history; my classmates, my siblings and my friends have all been dealing with this situation; it affects most of us from the post-genocidal generation.

Until recently, I saw this consciousness as a negative effect of the genocide, but teaching at Gashora has opened my eyes to the ways that this special consciousness has created a deeply thoughtful generation of future leaders. The more time I spend with these students, the more I am impressed by their compassion, their open-mindedness and their ability to care so much about the world. Any injustice touches them so deeply and they are so committed to bettering the world. The events that scarred my country so much left them with an intense ability to care and a deeply en-grained respect for life, human rights and equality.

As we start the 25 commemoration of the genocide and think about the toll that it had on Rwanda, my heart goes to every soul we lost, every broken family and all the pain that we will always carry as a country. My hope, however, rests in my students: in their love, their compassion and my firm belief that they would never allow our country to go back to what it was 25 years ago.

  • 25 years
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  • rwanda genocide
Teacher Catherine: Finding Her Passion

"A good teacher is like a candle- it consumes itself to light the way for others."  Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

This quote sums up the spirit of the teachers at Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology (GGAST). We are so proud of our entire staff and their selfless commitment to help raise the next generation of leaders and empower the young women at GGAST to reach for their dreams.

We are honored to introduce you to one of our English teachers, Catherine Abuko Ecoku.  I hope you can sense the passion she has for teaching and how proud she is to be part of the student's lives. Thank you Catherine!


My name is Catherine Abuko Ecoku.  Teaching as they say, ‘is a calling’. I cannot refute that as I have a profound love for it.  Here at Gashora Girls Academy, I teach the English language for grade 10 students. Additionally, I mentor the Poetry Lab Club, which took home the title of Champion in the 2017 “Battle of Poets” competition.  I also had the honor to mentor the students in the Peace and Love Proclaimers (PCP) Club. It is fascinating to mingle with the girls outside of class activities. 

It doesn’t seem long ago that I walked outside my door one misty morning, drops of rain and the whirling winds tempting to mess my neat hairdo.   I decided to call a “taxi moto” to drop me at the bus park where I could catch a bus to Kigali and later to Bugesera. It was the day for the interviews for an English language Teacher at Gashora Girls Academy. The thought of potentially being a part of the Gashora team and making a difference in the lives of young Rwandan women thrilled me to the core. Once I arrived at the school I was filled with a blend of excitement and anxiety. I must have done okay, as I was thrilled to later find out I had the job!   Again, anxiety filled me. Will I sail through this competitive yet educative environment successfully? Will the students and staff be receptive? These questions puzzled me.

I had always dreamed of working in a highly competitive school with rigorous academic and co-curricular programs.  This meant facing challenges head on- I was ready for it! I had equally looked forward to navigating the world of technology which Gashora Girls was highly respected for.  I was full of unstoppable determination to work more closely with young ladies as I admiringly watch them grow into phenomenal and sensational leaders of tomorrow who are likely to bridge the gender inequality gap rampant in not only Africa but the world at large. That dream drove me to Gashora Girls Academy.

As a language teacher, I find activities designed for the study captivating and my most amazing experience was the presentation of documentaries organized by my students; some of them were full motion pictures. It was mesmerizing to see the girls take on the commentary, directing and the production roles of the documentaries.

As an educator, I would give Gashora Girls Academy an A+ for reflecting on all the educational domains- cognitive, psychomotor and the affective domains. This has helped shape the completeness of humanity.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

This is one of my favorite learning quotations by Mahatma Gandhi. As an individual always ready to learn, I grasped that being the best of the best is absolutely no crime and the disposition to listen more crowns it all. Diligence, impartiality, compassion, creativity and courage are some of the great lessons I have learned from the girls. My relationship with the students is much more of a “big sister” role.

Am currently involved in a creative writing project with an 11th grade student who is writing a novel in the fantasy genre. I am super excited to be a part of her journey into the fantasy world. I cannot wait to see her work published.  

My connection with the Gashora community is undoubtedly unique and that explains why this institution will forever have a place in my heart.

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Learning to Choose Courage:   Suzanne Sinegal McGill

In celebration of International Women's Day, we are thrilled to highlight one of the amazing and inspiring women who co-founded Rwanda Girls Initiative and Gashora Girls Academy, Suzanne (Soozi) Sinegal McGill.  Soozi is a dedicated and inspiring voice advocating for girls education and women's empowerment in Rwanda and around the world.  

Below is from the speech that Soozi gave at the Women of the World Breakfast this year.  We hope that her story of overcoming fear will inspires you to step out of your comfort zone and inspire others.

"Not only can we, as women of the world, be inspired, but we can also be the ones to inspire - to fill others with breath and spirit to do more, to no longer be small, but to dream big and encourage and amplify other women’s voices."


Sometimes the enormity of the challenges in the world can make you feel powerless, small, leaving you wondering what can I possibly do? And sometimes, as women of the world, those challenges can make you feel even smaller.

But we all have a choice to make: stay small or get big. 

I don’t have a background as an education expert. But sometimes opportunities are placed in front of you. This is my story of how I chose to get bigger and take a risk. And, with the support of those around me and with the inspiration of the Gashora Girls themselves, I became an accidental education entrepreneur and philanthropist. 

I always thought you had to have a triple doctorate in order to dive into global work.  That you had to have all the answers and years of experience before starting anything.  Maybe some sort of secret handbook was given out. I know it might sound crazy, but the overriding feeling was that there are people out there somewhere who were supposed to do this work, experts who had all the answers, fancy titles or foundations. And that wasn’t me and one of my best friends, Shal Foster. 

What is the word that might come to mind if you hear that 2 moms with 7 children between them, were planning to start a girls’ boarding school for 275 high school girls 8,866 miles away in Rwanda?  Maybe it would be improbable?  Unlikely? Impossible is the word I would have chosen if anyone told me 11 years ago that Shal and I would be the founders of Rwanda Girls Initiative and the Gashora Girls Academy.

What did we know about starting a school in Africa? Frankly, not a lot. But as moms, we realized how fortunate our kids were to be born in a country where education is a given. We shared the belief that education is a human right. That we all do better when everyone has the chance to succeed.  Not all children are so lucky, as we all know, and in many places around the world adolescent girls are especially disadvantaged. 

Over 10 years ago, Shal and I first began working in Rwanda fueled by the belief that educating girls is the most powerful tool we have to create systemic change and break the cycle of poverty in low income countries. I’ll be honest, there was a certain amount of naiveite about the challenges we would face. I supposed it’s a bit like parenting, if you really knew all the challenges you were going to face, you might not ever have children. But fortunately, you don’t know it all up front and you learn and grow along the way, crossing each bridge as you come to it.  Along the way you realize it’s impossible to have all the answers, and you just have to keep doing the next right thing.  I believe this lack of preconceived ideas helped us with our success. It forced us to really listen, do our research, foster trusted connections on the ground and learn where the need was and how we might add value to support their vision. 

We went on what we now refer to as our “listening tour” in May of 2008, meeting with as many people as possible to get an understanding of the challenges and opportunities in the country. Overwhelmingly, we were asked to build a secondary school for girls that would help to educate the future women leaders of Rwanda. They knew in order to reach their development goals, girls’ and women’s engagement was the solution.  I’ll never forget the trip back on the airplane when Shal and I looked at each other with what was, I’m sure, a sort of deer in the headlights look and said, “Did we just say we were going to build a girls’ school in Rwanda?” That was the first of many such moments when things grew incrementally from what we expected.

One of my favorite modern poets, Cleo Wade writes:

“When we overcome our fear of failing, we have the power to step into the magnificence of our resilience.  Do the things you are afraid to do.  Do the things that feel big. Do the things that show you what you’re made of. “

The people we met in Rwanda believed we could do it. So we set aside all (well maybe not all) our fear of failure and we summoned all of our courage to do something…

It was terrifying some days (frankly, sometimes it still is).

But we were so inspired by the people of Rwanda who, despite their difficult history of a horrific genocide, were courageously rebuilding their nation.

They had been through so much and survived so much it made my fear of failure seem self-indulgent.  I was astounded by the courage to not just move past, but to attempt to forgive the unimaginable. The massacre of nearly one million people in 100 days in 1994.

The courage to move forward with dignity and resolve to redefine their country with a sense of purpose. Many didn’t believe it was possible, but here they are today as a model on the continent in so many ways. 

Rwanda is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, has one of the lowest corruption rates on the continent, and has the world’s first female majority parliament.  In fact, the constitution mandates that it must be 30% women. It currently stands at 61%.  The country is ranked #4 on the World Economic Forum gender parity index and it is the 9th safest country in the world as of 2017 according to the World Economic Forum while the US comes in at 84th.

For these reasons and Rwanda’s dedication to gender equality, we became convinced that Rwanda was a great place for our investment.  So, we set out on the improbable journey to build the Gashora Girls Academy.

As I reflect on some key moments on our journey, I remember bouncing along in a jeep on the dusty roads through the rural villages of Rwanda with the former Mayor of the district where we planned to build the school, looking for the perfect land.  Mayor Gaspard was so kind, and if he had his doubts about these two crazy western ladies, he didn’t let on.  He patiently rode with us for nearly an entire Sunday because he knew we didn’t have much time in the country as we were always racing back to our own young children at home.  We found the perfect piece of land in the village of Gashora, sitting on a hill overlooking the beautiful Lake Milayi.  That’s a moment I’ll never forget.  Standing there on the land that was nothing but bushes and weeds looking out at that lake.  We tried to imagine the possibility that lived on this ground beneath us, but it was still difficult to envision. 

In 2011, we opened Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology, an all-girls boarding high school for the top academic performers in Rwanda, focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, after hearing from the government this was their greatest need for development. 

When we were there for the school opening, I remember standing in what I imagine was close to the very same spot as 2 ½ years before; it was a surreal moment.  There it was in front of me – the buildings and the students in their crisp uniforms walking and laughing together. Some holding hands, or with an arm around the other, and I was overcome with emotion.  That was the moment I fully reflected upon all the careful planning, learning, and challenges.  But that all fell away, and it became something so much more profound.  It wasn’t just girls’ education in the abstract any more. It was these girls: Witness, Celeste, Yvonne, Jocelyn, Martine, Mereille, and many more. Ninety girls that first year, each with their own stories, fears, and dreams.  They and their families were entrusting us with these beautiful, courageous dreams which is such a big responsibility, but also has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. 

That’s also when we realized that good enough simply isn’t good enough. 

We wanted to remove as many of the barriers that girls typically face as we could.

With barriers removed and supported by outstanding teachers, we would be able to provide a platform for the best and brightest in the country to have the opportunity of the highest caliber education. This gave them the courage to step into opportunities they might never have thought possible.

We knew the students had a strong work ethic and a drive to improve their communities as this is part of Rwandan culture, but our Gashora Girls have absolutely blown us away with their tremendous perseverance.  Their success exemplifies what’s possible when you combine talent, hard work, and committed teachers along with opportunity. 

I have to brag about our students for a quick minute because we are so proud of them. We now have 528 graduates.  We have a 95% graduation rate, a 90% matriculation rate to higher learning with graduates now studying in 24 countries around the world at 142 colleges and universities.  We’ve had at least 1 student attend every Ivy League school in the US and our graduates have earned over $41M in financial aid.  They won the All Africa Debate Championship last year and started a small peanut butter company a few years ago, Gashora Gold, that won a prize that year for the fastest growing small business in Rwanda.  They have excelled in every way academically, but also in the way they serve their communities.  Our students volunteer over 6000 hours each year throughout the surrounding community of Gashora.  To say that they have surpassed our wildest dreams is an understatement.

Our north star is to inspire a young woman who is brave enough to discover and begin to use her voice and who believes in her power to change her world.

I was reminded by a friend of mine recently that the original Latin meaning of the word Inspire is "to breath in - to fill with breath or spirit." We hope each student breathes in all the opportunties around her and breathes in the infinite possibility she holds!

There have been challenges and moments early on when we thought maybe we were in over our heads. When we thought maybe a few of the less encouraging “experts” might be right.

From the smaller more humorous things to look back on like dealing with hippos and monkeys eating and ruining our crops on the farm (yes an actual thing we talked about at board meetings!) or the fact that at our first open house for the school in 2010, despite radio and tv ads telling people to come and learn about the school, only 6 people came. And one of them, most definitely, was a friend of our country director Maria, who she pulled out of the hair salon mid-appointment because she was worried Shal and I would be so discouraged.  Another time was when we received our first bids for the construction costs in 2009 and bursting into tears because the bids were twice as much as what we had budgeted.  And then there are those that were much more serious. We had to learn to navigate conversations around loss and grief through genocide remembrances and the loss of parents or close family members because death can be more of a presence in our student’s lives than we are accustomed to.

Falling down can be so discouraging. But each time, with the advantage of hindsight, I can say that we learned something that helped us adjust and correct and has provided opportunities to build deeper trust with our team and our partners on the ground as we navigate our way forward together, a little bit stronger. 

In many ways, my own growth has paralleled what we encourage in our students.  I suppose I’m a bit of a late bloomer. The combination of watching our students, as well as my own two daughters, take risks, do bigger things, and grow into empowered young women has helped me to also grow.

Something has changed in me since we first began over 10 years ago. I began by questioning, how could I possibly do this and who am I to consider trying? But that doubtful line of questioning became, why not me and if not me, then who? I think this fundamental shift has guided me and made me act more bravely over the last decade. So many people believed in us and stepped in to provide their help, expertise, and “superpowers” when we needed it. They encouraged us, telling us “you’ve got this”.  They helped us to have the courage to try and risk failure. Their support inspired us – filled us with their breath and spirit so that we could continue to move forward.

One of the women who inspired and breathed life into our dream was Minister of Gender and Family Promotion in Rwanda, the late Aloisea Inyumba, who devoted her life to giving women a voice after years of being undervalued.  I will never forget her taking my hand and telling me she believed in us and the difference these future women leaders would make in the country.  Then there are our fearless students like Enatha, who managed to persevere in her education through middle school even after some jealous neighbors who didn’t think a girl should get an education burned her family’s coffee trees, which provided her family’s small income to send her to school.  She ended up coming to our school, scoring a perfect score on the national exam when she graduated and secured the Presidential scholarship that took her to University of Arkansas at Littlerock.  She’ll start her graduate studies next year in applied science and hopes to work toward a cure for sickle cell disease.   We have so many students who’ve stepped past their fear to pursue their dreams.  I carry their courage in my heart. 

Last month, one of our alumnae, Darina spoke at our event.  Darina lost her mom 3 days after she received her acceptance to Princeton University and she faces many challenges.  She’s now a Sophomore at Princeton and shared this powerful message.

“What is so different about Gashora Girls Academy is that they focus on strength instead of weakness.  The question they ask is not ‘what do you lack and how can we give it to you’, but ‘what do you have and how can we help you use it to get what you lack’.  The truth is, trust takes courage.  It takes courage to invest in strengths instead of weaknesses, and even more courage to invest in strengths in spite of the weaknesses.”

My friends and family held up a mirror and reflected a strength they saw in me instead of seeing only what I lacked. So how can we today in our lives hold up a mirror to those around us – those we love, those we serve, those we work with – to show them their strengths as opposed to what they lack?  Can we also hold up this mirror for ourselves? Imagine if we all could operate from a place of inner strength and courage instead of fear, what we might all accomplish together. Not only can we, as women of the world, be inspired, but we can also be the ones to inspire – to fill others with breath and spirit to do more, to no longer be small, but to dream big and amplify other women’s voices.

That’s why we started Rwanda Girls Initiative: to educate and empower girls to become future leaders. Girls dedicate themselves to their dreams, return to their communities, improve the lives of their families, and inspire others to dream big.  Our girls’ hopes are so much bigger than we could have imagined. We are so thankful to be a small part of their story, but we’re even more grateful they’ve become such a big part of ours. Nothing is truly impossible. With hope, hard work and people who believe in you, you can turn the impossible into the improbable, and the improbable into the achievable.

I know everyone has an extraordinary story to tell.  Thank you for listening to my story and for being a force for good and love in the world!

  • education
  • girls school
  • Inspire
  • school
  • Suzanne Sinegal McGill