Trip to Rwanda Strengthens Collaboration with University of Global Health Equity

Photos Courtesy of University of Global Health Equity

As the new year began, Vassar President Elizabeth H. Bradley furthered the College’s partnership with the University of Global Health Equity (UGHE) during a week-long visit in January to the Rwandan university. Four weeks later, two UGHE senior administrators spent five days on the Vassar campus gathering information on how to enhance their students’ non-academic experience.

Five people stand next to a sign that reads “University of Global Health Equity; Butaro Campus”. The sign is placed in a grassy natural area with a farmland-covered hill in the background.
Gladwyn Lopez, Vassar’s Interim VP, Communications; Dr. Denis Regnier, Head of Humanities and Social Sciences at UGHE; President Elizabeth H. Bradley; Kerry Stamp, Vassar Assistant Dean for Global Partnerships and International Programs; and Wesley Dixon, Vassar’s Deputy to the President and Secretary of the Board of Trustees, during the trip to Butaro.

During her visit, President Bradley delivered a lecture to students and faculty on global health equity—and the role of liberal arts education in the pursuit of such equity. She said she was inspired by the students’ enthusiasm for their mission as future health-care professionals. “The fire and passion they have for what they’re doing demonstrated for me the power of the liberal arts component of their education,” she said.

Vassar and UGHE launched their partnership in 2019, after the late Dr. Paul Farmer visited Vassar and implored the College to get involved with this new medical school that was committing to developing physicians’ capacity to tackle social injustice as a key element of disease. UGHE has since embraced the idea of including liberal arts in the institution’s curriculum. Three months after the partnership was forged, Vassar Professor of Psychological Science Michele Tugade and Professor of History Ismail Rashid taught courses on the UGHE campus, but subsequent in-person exchanges were curtailed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, however, Tugade, Bradley, and Professor of Biology Kelli A. Duncan each co-taught courses via Zoom with members of the UGHE faculty.

Bradley said she made the trip to reinforce Vassar’s commitment to the partnership in the wake of the pandemic. “We are working on advancing the mechanics of integrating the liberal arts into the UGHE curriculum to see what components fit, and where,” she said.

During her visit, Bradley met with many of the students who had enrolled in her class and learned more about other aspects of their UGHE experience. She said she was particularly inspired by the institution’s commitment to having the students work with health-care professionals and others in the nearby village of Butaro and the surrounding countryside. “The students are working with clinicians and doctors in the local communities, but they are doing more than medicine,” she said. “They are helping local residents to start businesses, such as making clothing and starting a restaurant.”

Bradley also joined members of the UGHE community at a tree-planting ceremony in honor of the medical school’s first chancellor and co-founder, Dr. Paul Farmer, who died last February. Dr. Farmer, who served as chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, was a prime mover in developing the curriculum at UGHE that incorporates the liberal arts.

Bradley said Dr. Farmer and others who shaped UGHE’s curriculum “understand the practicality of this approach. It’s not a luxury. Dr. Farmer’s vision is what makes the system work better.”

Bradley collaborated with four top administrators at UGHE in writing a paper espousing the key role the liberal arts can play in producing better doctors. They contend this can be done by “enabling multidisciplinary approaches necessary for enhancing global health equity and [the] critical thinking needed to understand and help shape the larger social systems in which health care is delivered.”

One of the paper’s co-authors, Dr. Denis Regnier, Head of Humanities and Social Sciences at UGHE, said the medical school’s partnership with Vassar and other colleges and universities was furthering that effort. “We want the doctors trained at UGHE to be critical thinkers and able to think out of the box to take up the challenges in global health, and the liberal arts education that is used at Vassar and other U.S. institutions seems to be aligned with these goals,” Dr. Regnier said.

He said he was looking forward to augmenting the partnership that already exists. “My long-term goals will focus on developing the partnership beyond the sending of a few scholars from Vassar to UGHE,” Dr. Regnier said. “Faculty from UGHE, too, should be able to go to Vassar and teach a course there, to get a hands-on experience of the liberal arts model and develop their pedagogical skills accordingly.”

A classroom scene. Four people sit in front of laptops placed along a long table, listening to President Bradley speak. President Bradley is a person with shoulder-length gray hair and a dark gray shirt.
As part of the visit, Bradley conducted a class with UGHE students.

Kerry Stamp, Vassar’s Assistant Dean for Global Partnerships and International Programs, accompanied Bradley on the trip to Rwanda and said she could envision such collaborations taking place soon. “The teaching and co-teaching our faculty have done with UGHE faculty has been successful, and [we] want to continue to find ways to do that,” Stamp said. “We talked about future faculty trips by Vassar faculty to UGHE this coming summer, and we explored ways that students and faculty from both institutions could collaborate on research, such as doing projects together online and then coming to the campus for final work on a paper.

“The trip was a great success,” she added. “I sensed excitement on [the] students’ and faculty’s part for this kind of collaboration.”

Professor Tugade said Vassar’s partnership with UGHE has been mutually beneficial. “Taking part in this collaboration has provided me with the opportunity to meet students from a completely different culture, and it’s opened my eyes to different ways of teaching,” she said. “I’m excited about what’s ahead for both of our institutions.”

While plans continue to be developed for the teaching and learning aspect of the partnership, representatives of the two institutions are also involved in examining many non-academic aspects of students’ lives. On February 20, two administrators from UGHE, Charlene Mukondwa and Collins Inkotanyi, arrived on the Vassar campus for five days of meetings with some of their Vassar counterparts in Career Education, Residential Life, Alumnae/i Engagement, Health Services, and other student-facing services.

During the trip, Wesley Dixon, Deputy to the President, met with members of UGHE’s student services team. Dixon led a strategic problem-solving session to help Mukondwa and Inkotanyi prepare for their pending visit to the Vassar campus. “Meeting with the student services team in Rwanda energized me for what was to come during their visit to Poughkeepsie,” Dixon said. “I was inspired by the team’s creativity and their commitment to their students.”

Nine people stand in a row on a grassy hilltop, smiling at the camera. Behind them is a view out over mountains and a river. The sky is filled with rolling clouds.
Officials from Vassar and UGHE take a moment to enjoy the sights at Lake Bulera.

Wendy Maragh Taylor, Associate Dean of the College for Student Growth and Engagement, said the visits were the latest in a series of meetings, both virtual and in person, that Vassar and UGHE have engaged in over the past three years. “We are looking at ways to make the students’ lives easier,” Maragh Taylor said. “In a conversation I had recently with [Mukondwa], I said our goal is to find ways to enable our students to thrive, not just survive. Charlene repeated that phrase back to me and said it resonated with her.”

Mukondwa, who serves as Manager of Admissions, Records, and Student Services at UGHE, said she was particularly impressed by the level of engagement between students and administrators at Vassar. “The hierarchy at Vassar truly values the students’ opinions, and we need to develop that relationship with our students,” she said. “And the departments at Vassar are set up in subgroups so that each student’s particular needs are addressed.”

Mukondwa said that, as a result of previous interactions with Vassar students and administrators, several student-centered initiatives are already underway at UGHE, including the creation of a student government, now in the final stages of implementation, and the pending publication of a student-generated newsletter.

A closeup photo. President Bradley, a person with shoulder-length gray hair and a dark gray coat, sits at a wood-paneled table listening to a person with very short black hair, a thin black mustache, black eyeglasses, and a dark coat.
President Bradley meets with Dr. Joel Mubiligi, UGHE Interim Vice Chancellor.

Inkotanyi, UGHE’s Director of Campus Operations and Community Engagement, said he too was impressed with the level of student-administration interaction at Vassar. “Space has been created for the students to communicate with people in the administration, from the President on down, and we need to find ways to create that space for our students,” he said.

Inkotanyi said he had also had meaningful discussions with students and administrators in the Office of International Services regarding orientation and other programs for international students at UGHE. About 30 of the 168 students currently enrolled at UGHE are from countries other than Rwanda, he said.

Mukondwa said the information she and Inkotanyi had gathered on the visit to the Vassar campus would enable them to continue to map out ways of enhancing student-facing services at UGHE. “Now that we know these specific tasks, it is time for us to start moving toward expanding our staff,” she said.

View a gallery of photos from the trip to Rwanda on Vassar’s Flickr page.

February 27, 2023