I always dreamed of going to University

Fionah Umulisa interned with ESSA while studying for her undergraduate degree at the Africa Leadership University in Mauritius, on a full scholarship.

In this interview she shares her experiences on a scholarship and the impact COVID-19 is having on students in Rwanda.

Fionah Umulisa

What was your experience of education growing up in Rwanda?

I’m from a rural area in Eastern Rwanda. Growing up, my parents were farmers earning under the poverty line. My parents never had the chance to go to school themselves, but they knew they missed out on an opportunity.  

I have 9 siblings, so imagine what it was like for my parents trying to pay for all of us to go to school. But we managed it, they even prioritised school fees even over food.

For secondary school I went to the capital city Kigali because the schools are better there. I had to live at the school because it was too far to commute from home.

Sometimes we could not pay for school fees on time. It left wounds on my heart whenever I saw the headmaster coming to read out loud those who haven’t paid school fees. I was traumatised, I always knew I was on the list and my name was going to be read out.

I worked hard and overcame these difficulties with my parent's support. This gave me energy and good grace!

How did you find out about your scholarship?

There was a lack of information from my school about higher education, scholarships and careers but I dreamed of going to University outside of Rwanda for new experiences.

I had good grades, so I would go to my friend's house to borrow his laptop so that I could search and apply for scholarships. It was the only way I could access the internet.

The African Leadership University (ALU) in Mauritius was where I wanted to go. My application took me around two months to finish. It was very hard; I did not know how to write essays at first and I had to write 11 for my application.

We were also put in groups and given projects to deliver. I had to convince the others in my group to work around the times when I could go to my friend's house and borrow the laptop, otherwise I had to go to the internet café with more money to pay.

But it pushed me the extra mile. I was successful in my application to study social science which massively built my confidence and self-esteem.

My accommodation and fees and were covered – without this I would not have been able to study at university.

How can access to scholarships be improved?

Training teachers and administration in scholarship opportunities is important. It’s not because they don’t want to share the information, but often they do not have the information in the first place.

It would be useful if there was an online portal where there is information about all the scholarships, which teachers can access and pass the information onto students.

In remote schools without internet, outreach is needed so students and teachers are aware of opportunities.

How did THE scholarship change your life?

The two most important things I gained from my scholarship are:

1. A network: I have friends from different countries which I would not have made if I went to university in Rwanda. The exposure that comes with network means I can deal with people from different cultures and I’m supported by people around the world.

2. Understanding impact: My university encouraged us to think about how we can make Africa better. Knowing who you are, where you come from, and what you can do makes you want to do more. I don’t just want to support Africa from my own region, but through working together the impact will be greater.

What are your hopes for the future?

When I graduated, I knew I was interested in the social sector and contributing to improving people’s lives.

Now I am working for Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, an NGO that supports vulnerable youth in Rwanda, as a Career Development Officer for young people.

In the future I want to work for an international organisation grounded in the country where they are trying to make impact.

How has COVID-19 impacted students in Rwanda?

Lock down started and schools closed. Many students will have to repeat the school year now. This is particularly bad for those who already started school late, which often happens because their family could not afford fees when they were younger.

Students are being left behind with e-learning, for example the Ministry of Education have put resources on their website, on the radio, and on television, but many students don’t have electricity or can’t afford data. Teachers and students with internet access also need training to use these e-learning platforms.

Even having access to internet alone isn’t enough. Some students might have a smart phone, but this isn’t as efficient as a laptop and they might have internet connectivity issues in their area.

If you have a television or a radio, there is a weekly timetable for lessons for all grades in different subjects. The timetable was shared widely by the government which helped. Many students who don't have these things are studying offline. They just revise using the books and textbooks they already have.

For parents it’s a big challenge to home school, especially if they did not go to school themselves.

It’s very worrying that we might have a generation of young people who would not have the chance to go to school because of COVID-19. But as restrictions are starting to lift, I hope that education won’t be affected long term.