Study Away Is a Lasting Experience

Dave Ruiz and Daniel Harrell outdoors in Rwanda

Dave Ruiz ’23 landed in Kigali, Rwanda, in the late summer of 2022 with a bit of apprehension. He had chosen the School for International Training (SIT) Post-Genocide Restoration and Peacebuilding program for his study abroad experience. “I’ve always wanted to visit the African continent, especially as an afro-descendant person,” he says. “Also, I speak French [one of five languages he speaks fluently], and because French is one of Rwanda’s official languages, I was thrilled to have the chance to practice in my day-to-day life!” But, he admits, “I also was nervous about making friends, both with the other American students and with locals in Kigali.”

His fears soon evaporated. The SIT leader, Professor Celine Mukamurenzi, and her staff provided “constant support, guidance and enthusiasm that was critical to my success,” Ruiz says. “Also, I had a wonderful host family, and the love and kindness I received from my host mother, Dalida, and my entire host family eased the transition and allowed me ample opportunity to practice the Kinyarwanda language.”

Nicole Desjardins Gowdy, senior director of international and domestic programs, says that by the time they graduate, about half of all Pomona students have done at least one semester of off-campus study, whether in another country or in one of six U.S.-based programs. Most go in their junior year. During fall 2022, students were enrolled in more than 30 programs in locations ranging from Buenos Aires to Havana to Kathmandu. They key, Gowdy tells students, is to seek a program that is the best fit with their goals rather than one that simply seems popular.

For Ruiz, that fit was the program in Africa. “I study comparative politics—politics across countries, cultures and contexts,” he notes, and “this program dealt extensively with transitional justice issues in both Rwanda and Uganda.” Studying genocide was challenging and the information overwhelming. Ruiz says he “drew so much inspiration from the survivors who graciously taught us and visited our classes.” He and his fellow students also met rescuers and communities who rebuilt the country and people who continue the work of healing and peace. “I will never forget the resilience of the Rwandan people and the power of their example in facing a dark history and vowing to never forget its lessons,” he says.

Gowdy says that “one thing that can be surprising is how much you grow as a person in study away.” When students return, she sometimes notices a difference even in their physical appearance. She might see that “they’re carrying themselves in a new way. They’re more confident. They’ve had experience navigating different environments and worldviews,” she says.

Curiosity and flexibility are two characteristics vitally important to a successful study away experience, Gowdy believes. Curiosity “pushes you to get out and explore,” she says, even when it takes you outside of your comfort zone, and “flexibility allows you to question preconceived notions, to be open to new ways of seeing the world and to adapt to a different way of doing things.”

Ruiz says he was surprised by his ability to adjust to a totally new environment and how “at home” he felt in Kigali, a city of tree-lined streets set amid rolling green hills. “I was so pleasantly surprised at how much there was to do in Kigali, especially its restaurant, art and café scene. And I was thrilled at how many different neighborhoods, each with its own charm, there were to discover!”

Back on campus for spring semester, Ruiz still remembers the kindness he found in Rwanda and the friends he made. "I will never forget the simple joys of huddling under a bus stop canopy on a rainy day with smiling strangers, or the rich smell of fresh Rwandan coffee in the mornings," he says. “Or the delight of dancing with my new choirmates after I was invited to join a gospel choir by friends.”

Studying 9,390 miles away from Claremont and being in a totally different cultural and political context has impacted the way Ruiz thinks about his future career. “This experience definitely equipped me with new skills, ideas and experiences that I hope can aid me to be a better human being,” he says. “Learning about the powerful work of transitional justice and peace studies has inspired me to consider future work in those fields.”

While he thinks it’s too soon to know the lasting impact of his experience, Ruiz says that he “has a feeling that I will likely take much of what I saw and experienced with me for the rest of my life.” And, he says, “My college experience and my life has become infinitely richer and more rewarding to me in so many ways since I stepped on that plane. I think everyone should try it if they are able to!”