A two-day conference for colleges participating in the Rwandan Presidential Scholars Program will begin tonight at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock.

The conference will begin at 5 p.m. with a reception, welcoming Rwanda’s ambassador to the United States, James Kimonyo.
Former President Bill Clinton could be in attendance, according to a program release, but may be unable to due to recent health concerns.

Plans for a partnership between the Scholars Program and the William J. Clinton Foundation will be revealed at the conference. 

Hendrix College was the first in the state to establish the program in 2007. Since its beginning, 21 colleges are now on board, most recently, the University of Central Arkansas.

The program is unique, according to Peter Gess, director of International Programs at Hendrix College, because partnership between institutions of higher education is unusual, especially between private colleges with varying political and religious affiliations.

The program first began when the Rwandan government partnered with Oklahoma Christian University, according to the university’s Web site, as an opportunity to offer outstanding high school Rwandan students scholarship to OU.
The partnership formed under the Rwanda Vision 2020, set in place in efforts to rebuild the country after a brutal civil war left civic, government and private sector infrastructures in ruins.

Rwandan students like Innocent Harerimana Hirwa, Hendrix sophomore and chemistry major, have agreed to study a science and pursue a career that will benefit the country of Rwanda.
Hirwa said his government recently granted him the ability to pursue his education to the graduate level in chemical engineering, which he will use to teach at one of the understaffed universities in the country.

A program release stated after more than 1 million Rwandans were killed, including almost all of senior government officials, educators and business leaders were also killed or were driven out of the country by perpetrators of genocide.
“This program will allow Rwanda’s top students to receive a degree in the United States and then return to help rebuild their country,” the release states.

Hendrix has 19 Rwandan students enrolled. Students are also enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, Harding University, Henderson State University, Philander Smith College, Lyon College, and Ouachita Baptist. UCA will receive its first Rwandan scholars in the fall.

Tom Goodwin, professor of Chemistry at Hendrix, said without wanting to generalize, his Rwandan students were good students.

“They are smart, conscientious students and very hard workers,” Goodwin said.

Goodwin said he has worked closely with the students, helping them adjust to the American educational system. It is his understanding that students in Rwanda are discouraged to speak with professors outside of the classroom setting.
“Students I’ve dealt with are quiet, respectful and hesitant to say too much,” Goodwin said. “We encourage them to interact with their professors. We’re there for them if they need us outside of class.”
Goodwin said his Rwandan students sometimes have trouble with jargon related to chemistry, and he has attained studies in French for the students.
“They’re getting used to the American way. Of course, English isn’t even their second language. In specialized topics like biology, the terminology is different,” Goodwin said.

Sophomore Renato Gatsinger is majoring in biochemistry.
“I plan to serve my country as a doctor, working with poor communities,” Gatsinger said.
Gatsinger said his education will take several years, and he anxiously awaits his return to Rwanda.
Scholars are chosen based on national high school test scores. The Rwandan government has initially chosen math, physics, chemistry and biology as primary focus areas for students.

“The program is a key response to the critical need, and its importance to the future development of the country is evidenced by the government’s major, long-term investment in this program,” the release states.

According to Mark Scott, director of media relations at Hendrix, partnerships between institutes of higher education, regardless of affiliation, along with the leadership of Gess, have enabled the program to grow from four students to 130 students in 2010. 

Nine different states have implemented the Rwandan Presidential Scholars Program. 

(Staff writer Courtney Spradlin can be reached by e-mail at courtney.spradlin@thecabin.net or by phone at 505-1236. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)