December 1, 2020

By Li-Ming Tseng, Communications and External Relations Officer, Harvard Center for African Studies

Kayla Getter ’21, working at the teacher desk writing up interview notes
Kayla Getter ’21, working at the teacher desk writing up interview notes

We recently caught up with Kayla Getter, a senior majoring in social studies, who is currently completing her thesis on history education of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide in Rwandan high schools today. The Center for African Studies supported Getter over J-term of her junior year to travel to Rwanda and conduct research at a high school to learn more on this subject.

Getter first learned about the Rwandan genocide in high school and was surprised that she hadn’t heard about this atrocity at all until junior year. She was fascinated by how a country could build up from that experience through reconciliation and economic growth afterwards. Coincidently, after that class, there was an opportunity to spend two weeks on a service trip at a school in Rwanda. This experience continued to stay with her until college, and she knew she wanted to begin her research on Learning and Remembering: A Case study on history education in post-conflict Rwanda. She decided to return to the same high school she did her service trip to learn more about how genocide was taught in schools.

“The opportunity to conduct thesis research was truly a dream come true. I got to explore a new region through the critical lens of history education.”

For the first time, Getter was on an international trip by herself, without a program, as a woman in a new country when she went on a four-and-a-half week trip to explore her research topic in January. Being on the ground in Rwanda during J-Term, Getter realized how little she understood about the education system in Rwanda. Schools switched from teaching in French to English in 2008 in high school, where many teachers came from the neighboring Uganda and the different types of school subjects were also new to her. “The subject of genocide was much more interdisciplinary than I thought it to be.” She began this journey by listening and learning from those around her. The students constantly came up to Getter wanting to share their stories with her. “Living in the dorms, eating meals with the students, and observing classes made it easy to start conversations,” said Getter. She began to understand the nuances of talking about the genocide among students, young adults, and teachers. Not only did she learn about Rwandan culture and their education system, but there was an exchange of knowledge as students were also interested in learning about the US education system. The times she learned the most was during casual conversations with them, which was something she could have only done while on the ground. When she looked back on her conversations, she said, “we built trust and friendships as they reminded me of the importance of discussing history education and power dynamics.”

Visit to Nyamata Genocide Memorial, which is a church that was housing Tutsi victims until the army came.
Visit to Nyamata Genocide Memorial, which is a church that was housing Tutsi victims until the army came.

While Getter’s plans to return to Rwanda over the summer to continue her research were halted, the Center was still able to support Getter to continue her research remotely. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Getter has had to rethink how to use the materials she gathered in January. “I can’t go back to ask follow-up questions, so how do I move forward, go back to the materials to write my thesis, and evaluate the materials in a different lens?” She continues to be in contact with some friends she made in Rwanda, who not only keep her updated on how schools are responding to the pandemic, but also share more resources. Getter now relies on the materials she gathered previously, newspaper resources, and these contacts to write her thesis.

Getter has devoted a lot of her college experience to bringing together her passion for international education. “This research experience was a culmination of a lot of my interests in college.” She is the Director of Franklin After-School Enrichment, spent a summer interning for a non-profit organization doing education reform in Mexico City, and hopes she will continue this after graduation teaching in Colombia.

You can watch her Destinations World presentation here.