As a Peace and Global Studies major at Indiana’s Earlham College, in 2013 Leslie Massicotte went abroad with the SIT program Rwanda: Post-Genocide Restoration and Peacebuilding.
Her time with SIT was, she says, eye-opening. “My experience with SIT was the most stimulating academic discussion maybe of my whole college career — all these different voices, students from different backgrounds, discussing things like international relations, politics, and social work.”
As part of SIT’s experience-based learning, she talked with Rwandans about reconciliation in the wake of genocide and found that firsthand experience invaluable. “I learned what reconciliation really looked like on the ground.”
Leslie stayed with a host family in a Muslim-majority part of Kigali, Rwanda, and that relationship has lasted well beyond her semester abroad, with near-weekly contact that continues even now.
When it came time to do her independent research on the project, Leslie’s decided to focus on sexual and reproductive health – subjects that for her were a normal part of growing up in the Universalist Unitarian church, where Leslie participated in the in-depth program Our Whole Lives. When she met other people her age who lacked the same knowledge, she said she was shocked. ” I realized this information wasn’t coming from schools or from anyone else.”
She saw a similar need for education and reproductive and sexual health in Rwanda, and her experience there brought a new focus and enthusiasm for the subject when she returned to Indiana. She became an educator for Our Whole Lives and pursued internationally focused work as a refugee case manager. In that role, she helped create a women’s health center that provides education on subjects like menstruation, reproductive anatomy, and access to contraceptives.
Last year, Leslie’s interest in Rwanda led her to return there as a permanent resident. As the 2018 recipient of SIT’s Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship, she will continue and expand her work with Mind Leaps, a youth center in the same Kigali neighborhood where she lived with her SIT host family.
Alice Rowan Swanson was an SIT Study Abroad student to Nicaragua in 2006. Two years later, she was killed while riding her bicycle to work in Washington, DC. Her family established a fellowship in her name in 2009, and last year created an endowment that will ensure the future of the fellowship. Fellows are named twice each year from among SIT Study Abroad and IHP alumni who want to return to their program country and pursue projects that benefit human rights in the region.
Leslie’s work with Mind Leaps is just such a project. “Mind Leaps is a place for street kids and at-risk youth,” Leslie explains. “Their dance program gets kids involved, and an accelerated learning program helps them return to the formal education system and work on job skills with vocational training.”
As an ESL teacher at the Mind Leaps youth center, Leslie saw a need for sexual and reproductive education amid an uptick in pregnancies among girls and young women. The support she receives from the Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship will directly fund that education at Mind Leaps.
An important aspect of this new project, Leslie said, is its long-term viability. Her plan begins with teaching children, but also includes training for other educators to continue the work beyond the period funded by the fellowship. Leslie also plans to monitor goals and results to be sure the program is effective. “The whole idea is to use the money to start the teaching, but to make the project sustainable and able to run without my help,” she said
The genesis of her work in Kigali is clear. “My passion for giving back, serving others, and being abroad came together at SIT.”