After completing high school at King David’s Academy in Kanombe, Mary Ingabire had no big hopes of joining college.
Instead, she settled for an internship as a writer at one of the media houses in Kigali. It is then that she got to know about the Bridge2Rwanda scholarship programme, through a friend that had enrolled a year earlier. This friend encouraged Ingabire to apply for a place, but she was reluctant and explains why:
“At that time, I thought that Bridge2Rwanda was a programme for only science students. I was an arts student, having done History, Literature and Geography in high school. I didn’t have hope, so I thought there was no need to apply.”
Her friend pressed her on, insisting that she could make it, “as long as I was determined and willing to accept all the challenges that come with it. I was like okay.”
Today, Ingabire is one of the 43 students that make up the current class of the Bridge2Rwanda scholarship programme, and was recently elected their president. Professionally, she is inspired by Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, and if all goes well, wants to study International Relations, “because I look at it as a course that will direct me to where I want to be. I want to come back as a servant leader in Rwanda.”
Bridge2Rwanda was formed in 2007 to help expand Rwanda’s global network of friends, encourage foreign direct investment, and to create opportunities for Rwandan students to study abroad.
Later, in 2009 the programme took on an extra role to address bottlenecks that previously prevented Rwandan students from accessing quality higher education opportunities abroad.
The result was the birth of Bridge2Rwanda training programme. The intensive, 16 month gap year course takes the best students from secondary school, trains them over this period, and gives them the necessary tools to apply for scholarships at different universities across the globe.
The course is administered from the Bridge2Rwanda training center, located on the first floor of Telecom House, in Kacyiru.
From the pioneer class of 16 students in 2011, the programme has grown to accommodate 43 students in the current class. What’s more, it has also expanded to draw in students from neighbouring countries like Burundi, the DR Congo, South Sudan, and even from further afield, in Liberia.
Mesach McBorrough is one such foreign student, all the way from Liberia. He first heard about the Bridge2Rwanda scholarship programme from his spiritual mother at his local church.
“She told us we all have the potential and can apply. She convinced me and I went ahead and applied, along with nine other students. A few weeks later I received a call informing me I was one of the two students from Liberia that had qualified. I was like wow … thank God, because all my life I’ve had this passion to do something that my country is not able to offer for those that don’t have the money.”
According to Mark Karugarama, the director of the Bridge2Rwanda training center, the programme places a strong emphasis on academics, but goes beyond just that.
“We have a holistic approach to our education, because academics alone is not enough. Our comprehensive programme focuses on five main areas to prepare students to become outstanding, internationally-competitive servant leaders.”
Apart from academic theory, the students attend a career and leadership development class, where they learn what kind of opportunities they want to take up in future, and the careers they want to pursue. They study about iconic leaders in the world, the history of leadership across the continent, and the leadership model and style of great leaders.
Karugarama explains that this is an integral part of the programme, “because we believe we are educating future leaders of Africa and the world who will get this education and turn it into tangible skills and knowledge that can contribute to their country’s development and even influence the world.”
The third class deals with spiritual development/discipleship, “where we encourage them to seek out Jesus as the biggest role model because we are a faith-based organisation.”
The fourth is the community service aspect, where students are encouraged to look out for what to do in their communities. They choose whether to go and tutor at children’s villages, visit street children’s places of abode and play with them, or support a widow in their locale.
There is also the social aspect, where a sense of family is fostered upon students. “We create a support group for each of the students because ten years down the road, who knows what they will be? The more close they are, the more they are able to impact things,” notes Karugarama.
As director of the center, his role is to coordinate administration, staff, logistics, and generally ensure that students are happy and comfortable and have everything they need to study.
“Over the last four years, the students have performed extremely well, with their grades improving each year. That gets different universities interested, and makes them understand that the quality of Rwandan students is as high as that of students anywhere, even higher sometimes. That is why our students are able to join top quality universities like Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, and the University of Chicago.”
Karugarama believes that it should be a big deal to all Rwandans to know that we now have a caliber of students who represent Rwanda on the international education scene.
“This year, Columbia University admitted one of our scholars. The university has a 7% acceptance rate, meaning very many bright students from America and other countries could not qualify. They took her because she’s bright, brilliant, and they see the value that this kind of student adds to them, the diversity of ideas and opinions she brings on board.”
He notes in its four years of existence, the programme has received over $21 million in direct funding and scholarships to students from different universities.
“That’s about 98 students in total. This is a huge amount of funding for any one group of students or for any one country. It’s generous on the part of the universities, but also it goes to show the work being done here, and the efforts the students put in to make themselves better, competitive and attractive to these universities.”
Going beyond academics
About a five minute walk from the Telecom House, behind the new University of Kigali branch is a high rise green gate that leads into the International Scholars Dorm. It’s a large house rented out by Bridge2Rwanda for its international scholars who live here as a family with 20 of their Rwandan counterparts.
“The point is that they get to engage, feel at home, connect, become friends and comrades, and feel supported and loved.”
At Telecom House, the students are provided lunch, and are allowed coffee breaks, all free of charge.
Upon graduation, Bridge2Rwanda finds internship and employment opportunities for them in Rwanda so that this education does not go to waste.”
For his part, Yves Iradukunda, the Director of Career Development at Bridge2Rwanda teaches the leadership class.
“Bridge2Rwanda was started with a goal to build future servant leaders for Rwanda. To do that goes beyond just getting them scholarships because many other programmes are doing the same. What’s different about Bridge2Rwanda is that vision of actually creating a generation of young servant leaders who will come back to work with the public and private sector and development partners to better the country.”
Iradukunda uses three biographies of prominent world leaders as guiding texts for the leadership class: That of president Paul Kagame, of Nelson Mandela, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia.
“When reading to them the bio of these people, we want to instill in them the hard work and sacrifice that goes into being a great leader. To know that even with a good education, at the end of the day they have to get a job, build a skills set, and impact people where they are, because not everyone is going to be a leader in the form of the President of a country.”
What the students say
Meshach McBorrough, Liberia
My experience at Bridge2Rwanda so far has been very rewarding. The international students are very kind, the local students are even kinder. We are one. In times of trouble we stand up for one another. I always loved my mother and coming here I knew I’d miss her, but they’ve made me feel so at home that now I don’t feel that type of absence anymore.
Since I was a little boy I’ve always enjoyed bandaging cuts on my little brothers and sisters, massaging their limbs whenever they sprained them, so I’ve always been in love with pediatrics.
My dream has always been to be a pediatric surgeon or even just a pediatric medical doctor because my passion is to be around kids and to help them, not only in my country but all over Africa.
Serges Saidi Mutima, DRC
I was in Eastern DRC when I heard of the Bridge2Rwanda scholarship programme. A friend of mine called and told me about it, and I just took up the opportunity. I went and took the test and written interviews. We were very many, but I had a chance to be among those selected to spend sixteen months preparing for college and life after.
Now we are in the process of trying to get what we need to qualify. I come from a French background where we don’t take English seriously, so we have to study a lot to be able to do the TOEFL and SAT exams.
Quintia Iradukunda, Burundi
A week after we did interviews, I received a call informing me that I had been selected for the scholarship programme. Only four of us qualified out of the 40 students who applied.
I was so happy because I knew it was a big opportunity for me. I knew two other students who had been here a year before, and had succeeded. I told my parents that I had got a scholarship in Rwanda and they gave me their blessings.
At the time I was already doing Business Administration at the International Leadership University of Burundi, but I had to drop everything to come here.
Perfect Mfashijwenimana, Rwanda
I studied at Petit Seminaire Ndera near the airport at Kanombe. My experience in this seminary was about working hard. Every time, we were being told to work hard. At first I did not understand why. In my S5, a friend of mine was joining Bridge2Rwanda. He was not so good, but what I had learnt about him is that he worked hard and made sure everything he did was in favor of him studying.
I told myself why can’t I take his example? I tried and it worked. After S6 I performed very well in the national exams, something I did not expect. That is when I gained the confidence to apply for this scholarship.
Mary Ingabire, Rwanda
I have been here only two months, but already I can sense the change in me. When I came I was a little naïve and a kid.
Bridge2Rwanda gives you a sense of direction and makes you mature. They don’t impose anything on you, but the lessons you learn make you grow up. The talks with teachers and visitors mature you. We receive very many people who have had long walks in their lives, and those people inspire us. They give you reason to know why you are here, and why you are going abroad. We don’t go abroad to just have fun and not come back. Bridge2Rwanda we have a reason, which is to go out there and get the knowledge, and return with it to develop the country and give back to society.
As a student, we don’t pay anything to Bridge2Rwanda. You only give them your sincerity, the truth within you, hard work, and being yourself.