The occasional series "How it feels" was first published in the 2005-2006 volume of the Orient. In this 2010 revival, Bowdoin students tell the Orient about their experiences—good, bad or just extreme. Here are their stories.
How it feels to teach English in Rwanda
I traveled to Rwanda during the month of June, primarily teaching English at a primary school and volunteering at a hospital.
It was just a basic government school in this village called Shyir which is in the northwestern part of the country. We were teaching English, which was added as a national language as of last year. They are phasing out French which was the main language that they taught at school.
Most of the kids seemed eager to learn and everyone was paying attention and staring at us eagerly the whole time.
It was mostly a fun thing for the kids to be taught by the mizungus [white man] and sing Bob Marley songs. They were obsessed.
The people we stayed with were two doctors from North Carolina who had been living in Rwanda since 2003 with their family. They came into Rwanda to this hospital that had originally been set up by the Belgian colonizers. It was a 109-bed hospital that served a district of 250,000 people, if you can imagine that.
Basically when they got there, everything had been ravaged by the genocide... It is close to the Congo so actually it had been worse there during the late '90s.
So they came in and renovated the hospital and started operations there and ever since then it has been growing and they now have a staff of Rwandan doctors. The husband...is trying to get this hydropower project started to provide power to the hospital because right now it doesn't have any power. They just have generators and they have to carry many gallons of diesel up this rough mountain road from 30 kilometers away every week to power the hospital from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. That is the only time they have power.
You see tons of people walking down the streets. Not really anyone has cars except taxi drivers and rich people.
What was really weird to me, at first, was leaving the city. In the U.S., when you drive out of the city, you don't really see people anymore—you just see countryside and occasional houses and stuff, but Rwanda is really densely populated. As we left, there were still people walking all beside the road.
It was very lonely coming back [to the U.S.] When we were in this village, we stayed...in this little apartment on this main road that went through the village. So anytime we weren't at the school or the hospital, we were just kind of sitting out on the porch of our little place and people would just come by and talk. I was always around people while we were over there and coming back it was lonely.
I feel like compared to Rwandans, Americans are much more isolated. Everyone does their job during the day and goes home and only interacts with people in their house and in their immediate family.
[In Rwanda] you see large groups of people sitting around talking to each other. Without so many material possessions...the entertainment is just talking to other people. They have nothing, but most people seem much more upbeat and positive all the time and have a lot more social capital, perhaps.
Before we had planned this trip, I guess my vision of Africa had been just war-torn, violent, filled with disease, all these bad things that you hear about the continent. Maybe it is like that it different parts of Africa, but Rwanda is really not like that.
You can read all you want about something but, for me, actually traveling to Rwanda was eye-opening. It just changed my perspective on a lot of things.
James Henry '13 as told to Sarah Levin. Henry spent one month in Kigali and Shyira, Rwanda.
How it feels to work with ex-cons
I worked with a non-profit public interest group called Center for Community Alternatives which worked to promote reintegrative justice for people who have had interactions with the criminal justice system. We provided both legal and social services to help them with the barriers they face with their conviction history.
I was able to do a really wide variety of things. I specifically helped with different clients in terms of fixing mistakes on their criminal history records, helping them apply for certificates of rehabilitation and putting together advocacy packages and letters to prospective employers to help them understand what a certain client's conviction history meant.
There was one day when we had two clients back to back and the first client had one entry on his criminal history and it was for misuse of food stamps and we were sitting there like, "this poor guy, he was hungry and he wanted more food. God forbid." The second client had a page and a half of criminal content charges, things that are typically related to domestic violence. We were all a little hesitant to meet with him and afraid of what is was going to be like.
So we went into the first meeting expecting to love this guy and already felt sorry for him going into it. By the end of the meeting, he was able to take no responsibility for what he had done... no sense of responsibility for anything. We were really confused and we were kind of wrong. We didn't like him as much as we thought [we would].
We had our next client meeting and the next guy comes in and immediately we just loved him. He was completely taking responsibility for everything, really looking to turn his life around...
Had I been an employer faced with just these two criminal records, I never in a million years would have chosen the second client and now having met with both of them, I never in a million years would have chosen the first client. It was really interesting to see how in practice, that's how their lives are being affected by these records.
I think to me the most interesting thing was that I didn't really have a sense of how having a criminal record really actually impacted someone's daily life. I had no sense of how expansive the effects are, not just for people who are getting arrested and going to jail, but for their family members and for everyone who is involved in the entire process and really trying to figure out how to change a system that is so completely flawed so that it can actually work to rehabilitate rather than punish.
There were issues that are affecting people even if it's not something I would be directly running across in my everyday life. It just opened my eyes to the fact that this problem is way bigger than I had noticed before.
Leah Greenberg '13, as told to Sarah Levin. Greenberg received a grant from the Preston Public Interest Career Fund to work at the Center for Community Alternatives in Syracuse, NY.