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!