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Dr. McIntyre spends Fulbright year in Rwanda

Aug 1, 2019

Posted in: News

By Taylor Burress, Communication Intern

Dr. Karen McIntyre’s year abroad teaching students in Rwanda was filled with challenges, rewarding experiences and memories that left an impact. In the 2018-19 academic year, McIntyre, who is an assistant professor in the Robertson School of Media and Culture, was awarded a Fulbright scholarship. This recognition allowed her the opportunity to travel, teach and research solutions journalism and media issues in a developing country.

"We are so proud of Dr. McIntyre's accomplishments abroad as a Fulbright scholar and the impact she has had on the journalism community in Rwanda and the region," said Dr. Marcus Messner, interim director of the Robertson School. “I am certain our students will benefit greatly from her experiences as she brings them back into her classrooms.”

 

Unlike at VCU, McIntyre learned quickly in her experience abroad that schedules can change fast in Rwanda; even when it comes to the courses she was teaching. 

“Over there, I got my schedule of classes and when and where they would be taught at like 8 p.m. on Sunday night when classes started that Monday morning,” she said.

McIntyre was also challenged by teaching large classes of students in upper level courses, with little technology and a slight language barrier. McIntyre had classes of 130 students and none of her classrooms had reliable access to the internet.

While Rwanda’s main language is Kinyarwanda, in 2008 the country made a change in their education system and switched to English.

“The students don’t speak English fluently which is no fault of their own,” McIntyre said. “They just switched overnight, so it’s super impressive to me that the students speak as much English as they do because they weren’t given any training.” 

 

McIntyre added, “It’s a challenge but it’s what I expected; it’s teaching in a developing country and they have limited resources … it’s definitely a lot more difficult than teaching here, but it was super rewarding.”

Some of McIntyre’s favorite memories from her trip abroad involved the impact she made on her students and the relationships she felt she made with them. The students appreciated little things like showing up on time to class every day.

“I had a student come up and tell me, ‘I really want to be educated and I really want to learn more but I don’t have the resources and I don’t have the guidance that I need’; and basically asked me if I could help him,” McIntyre said. “Then I would periodically send him online reading materials and whatnot. He would read them and get back to me and I’d send more and that kind of thing.”

Fulbright scholars are challenged to propose research ideas and McIntyre took this to heart. While in Rwanda, she not only taught five courses but researched public trust in the media.

“My colleague and I did focus groups with 72 members of the public there,” she said.

McIntyre and her colleague, Meghan Sobel, an assistant professor at Regis University in Denver, found from their focus groups that overall the Rwandese people trust their media. They found the contrast of views from Rwanda to the U.S. intriguing. McIntyre noted that Rwanda does not have full press freedom, yet its citizens have a lot of trust in their journalists. Unlike in the U.S., where there is a much freer press, yet public trust in U.S. media is low.

McIntyre is currently working on writing a study to submit to an academic journal based on her research as well as working on a book proposal about press freedom and the media landscape in the East African region. 

While being over there, McIntyre also studied journalism educators in Rwanda and the challenges they face. She partnered with a colleague, Wellars Bakina from the University of Rwanda, and they interviewed educators in the country.

“There aren’t very many, maybe 25 total, so we interviewed as many of them as possible and then we’ll write up a paper about the challenges they face,” McIntyre said.

While McIntyre taught many students during her time there, the people of Rwanda taught her things as well.

“I am just in awe of how resilient Rwandans are. The genocide only happened 25 years ago … so most of the people that you meet there have a story,” McIntyre said. “It’s amazing how they have gone through the experiences they have gone through and come out strong and working together.”

She added, “I visited a reconciliation village where ex-perpetrators of the genocide live as neighbors to survivors …  it's such a huge lesson in forgiveness and resilience and that impresses me.”

McIntyre not only admired the people of Rwanda for their ability to overcome hardships, she formed lasting friendships with the people she and her fiancé, Dennis Hopkinson (who was also a Fulbright Scholar), grew close to over their stay.

 

“It’s interesting how you can really develop a relationship with someone even if you really only exchanged a couple of words with them, due to the language barrier … but at the same time you get to know each other in this fundamentally human way,” McIntyre said.

While it was hard for McIntyre and Hopkinson to leave the people and the country they grew close to, she said they are getting many messages and emails from their friends. McIntyre does not have any set plans to return as of yet, but she hopes to go back to Rwanda in the future. She also hopes that the country will continue to move forward in terms of media freedom.

“Their media is quite restricted, but it has been making gains continually, so I think and hope it will just continue in that trajectory,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre published a story in the Columbia Journalism Review while she was in Rwanda and noticed the baby steps the country has taken in terms of a freer press.

“The article was about my research, but there were aspects in it that were critical, and I did not receive any backlash, which I could have, so that was a good sign,” she said. “So, in the future I hope they continue to take more steps toward media freedom.”

McIntyre hopes to arrange a study abroad program in Rwanda for students at VCU to travel and study in the country as well as Rwandan students to come here and study at VCU. She would like to build more of a relationship between the University of Rwanda or another university in the county and the Robertson School. 

“I think these experiences going abroad are eye opening and really just open people’s minds, and I want that for other people,” said McIntyre. “For the students both here and there, I really want to try and work to make that happen.”

To get a closer look in to McIntyre’s year as a Fulbright Scholar in Rwanda visit her travel blog.