Honors Benefits – Laura Homiller Travel Award

The post below is shared by senior mechanical engineering student Laura Homiller ’20 from Quinlan, TX and describes her experience this past summer in Rwanda.

As cliché as it may sound, the summer I spent in Rwanda was truly a once in a lifetime experience. Not exactly a typical study abroad, the program involved spending a month in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, learning about different medical devices and how to repair them while trying to absorb as much of the local language, Kinyarwanda, as we could. The second month we were sent out in groups of two foreign students with one or two local Rwandan students to complete a month long internship of sorts in different hospitals around the country where we worked with the local Biomedical Technicians to repair equipment and complete our own design project to benefit the hospital.

A team of five people in medical scrubs pose with crossed arms in front of a building
My team with our Biomedical Technician at Nyagatare District Hospital

As a mechanical engineering student, I was able to experience firsthand the impact even the smallest impact design decisions can have on end-users. Hospitals in places like Rwanda have extremely limited access to spare parts of any kind, so when devices are designed with proprietary consumables, such as air filters with specific casings, it makes in unnecessarily hard on the technicians who have to keep those devices running. Things like designing to make a screw more accessible can save technicians precious time in places where they don’t have the luxury of replacing old or broken equipment. I will never forget the hours I spent fighting to get a suction machine’s casing open, or the frustration I felt when we discovered the only problem with a machine was a spare part impossible to buy in Rwanda. No matter in what field I end up working upon graduation, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to design things without trying to consider the entire lifetime of a device, just in case it winds up on the desk of an overworked technician in rural Rwanda.

Two people in medical scrubs and gloves sit on the ground working on a machine with bikes in the background
My teammate Chris and I working on a suction machine

As a human being, I learned even bigger lessons about resilience, patience, and forgiveness from the people in Rwanda. Before I left, the only thing I really knew about Rwanda was that there had been a genocide. I didn’t know that the genocide was caused by arbitrary social classes that the Belgians implemented to better control the Rwandan people in colonial times, and I didn’t really understand what it meant for the country that this tragedy only happened 25 years ago. I learned that this means the country essentially started over in the years following 1994, trying to recover from the loss of 800,000 lives. It means that nearly everyone you talk to in Rwanda has been affected in some way by the genocide, even though they don’t talk about it much. What I found most amazing about Rwanda is how far they’ve come. We had the opportunity to visit a Reconciliation Village where survivors and perpetrators live together in peace, because somehow the survivors were able to forgive despite everything they lost. We heard the story of a woman who lost her entire family in the genocide, yet she chooses to live side-by-side with those who participated in the killings because she recognizes the power of forgiveness to provide healing. I still can’t really comprehend the magnitude of the tragedy that occurred in 1994, nor the healing that has happened in that Reconciliation Village, but I am able to recognize the extreme resilience of the people of Rwanda. They’ve chosen to move forward despite their hard history, and I can only hope I would have the strength to make that decision in such a situation.

View of a lake from above a red-roofed brick building surrounded by trees
Lake Kivu near Kibuye, Rwanda – one of my favorite pictures from the trip

Spending an extended period of time in a foreign place is hard. I felt uncomfortable, emotional, and out of place on a daily basis while I was in Rwanda, but I wouldn’t trade those feelings for anything. My experience abroad has given me a new confidence in myself that I can handle the hard things that come my way, and a new confidence in humanity based on what I saw in the people in Rwanda. I’m so grateful for the Honors Travel Fund for giving me the opportunity to go abroad, and for all the friends I made along the way.

To learn more about the Honors Travel Fund, visit http://tx.ag/HonorsTravelFund.

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