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Rwanda’s Only Women’s College Trains Badass Leaders of the Future

After Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes, a 2006 Vanderbilt University graduate, moved to Rwanda following the country’s genocide, she realized women could not get jobs due to a lack of education and skills, leaving them unable to adequately support their families. Thus, Hughes first started the Akilah Institute in 2008, and made it public in 2010. Through this school, she hoped to help women from low-income communities pursue professional careers.

The Akilah Institute is the only women’s college in Rwanda and welcomed its largest class of new students, 400 total, in July 2017. Its team plans to lay the ground for a new campus in 2018 and establish seven new campuses by 2031.

Students can choose from three programs: information systems, business management and entrepreneurship, and hospitality management. These are the fastest-growing industries in East Africa today, as the Akilah Institute LinkedIn page states. Akilah’s graduates earn 12 times the amount of the national median income, about 78 percent are the first to complete college in their family, and all students receive scholarships.

The program combines a competency-based model with a blended learning format. First-year students spend time in a traditional classroom and work collaboratively on group- and problem-based projects. Second-year students work though more content online so they can progress at their own pace. All students receive intensive leadership training, career development services, and community service opportunities.

Akilah’s education model stems from four pillars: community leadership, character development, career management, and business and leadership skills. The students complete social change projects with 80 or more hours of community work, leadership modules that cover 512 instruction hours, and work on projects relating to gender, women, and peacekeeping. Students receive leadership opportunities through clubs and student government positions as well.

In a testimonial on Akilah’s website, 2016 graduate Claudine Uwamahoro explained how Akilah helped her develop confidence in her abilities.

“Akilah has changed me. Right now, I can really talk to a person and look them straight in the eyes, and that’s a sign of confidence,” Uwamahoro said. “If I’m at school, I don’t want to be just Claudine. Why not Claudine the smart one, the kind one, or the one taking initiative?”

The Akilah Institute just moved to a new campus with brand new IT and Hospitality labs, classrooms, and a library. In an official report, Hughes notes the campus’ great growth over the last five years.

“Our reputation has evolved from a small, scrappy school into a respected, professional institution that prepares young leaders to launch their careers,” Hughes said.

The report also states that 90 percent of graduates are supporting at least one person in their family financially, and 82 percent of graduates participate in at least one community group. It also connects students and alumni with employers across the region through MindSky, an online talent marketplace.

The report further explains the initiatives Akilah launched this year. The Akilah Institute partnered with filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson on the release of her documentary, Mama Rwanda, and co-hosted a series of screenings in the U.S. These screenings featured a panel discussion about the ways women can transform their lives through education, leadership, and entrepreneurship. Additionally, one of its employer partners, Marriott International, opened a luxurious hotel that employs over 60 Akilah graduates. Alumni have also received jobs with well-known employers in the region, such as African Entrepreneur Collective and RwandAir.

Graduate Nadia Kubwimana is a catering manager at Marriott, according to a PBS News Hour broadcast. She mentors 250 women in her hometown outside Kigali on weekends. Kubwimana and these women have started 42 small businesses and meet in a storage shed on the outskirts of the city.

As a result of the Akilah Institute’s education model, which empowers women in Rwanda and equips them with skills necessary for success in the workplace, many of these graduates have obtained careers and can now financially provide for their families. The Akilah Institute is training the future female leaders of Rwanda, and we can only hope the program grows and expands to reach new heights for gender equality in the future.

Featured Image by Inclusive Security on Flickr

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