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In pursuit of excellence

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Dr. Mike O’neal with President Paul KagameThe unraveling and reengineering of a dream to provide Rwanda’s brightest minds with a world-renowned education

On Mar. 16, the short, bespectacled Dr. Mike O’Neal peered over the podium at the crowd before him. He spoke with a slow Oklahoman drawl, and at first glance seemed an unlikely figure to be at center stage among Rwandan government leaders and American academics assembled in the upscale Serena Hotel conference hall. As the audience listened attentively, O’Neal’s speech focused on the Central Africa School of Excellence (CASE), a new project that will offer up to 2,000 high achieving Rwandan students a premiere American education.

“Did I dream all this up? Absolutely not,” O’Neal described later among the departing crowd. “But you enable something through relationships, by introducing people to the right projects.”

CASE was a product of O’Neal’s friendship with a successful businessman in Atlanta, Georgia, who had set aside millions of dollars to build a high caliber boarding school for East and Central African secondary students. With the help of the Greater Atlanta Christian School, which, according to O’Neal, “is one of the finest K-12 schools in America,” CASE is due to be launched in 6-12 months and is designed to attract not only Rwandans, but students from all over the region. “They want it to be quality—they don’t want to build a school just to build a school,” says O’Neal.

Yet O’Neal’s relationship with Rwanda commenced much earlier. When he first visited Rwanda in the fall of 2004 to discuss a partnership with President Paul Kagame, it was impossible to predict the coming impact this meeting would have. At the time the differences between the two men were unmistakable: O’Neal was a public accountant in the 1960s before pursuing a lifelong career in university administration; Kagame, on the other hand, grew up a refugee who eventually led one of the twentieth century’s most successful guerilla wars, and who subsequently took the helm of a country shattered by genocide.

Yet Kagame’s distinction in African politics was founded by a philosophy shared by his American visitor: that quality education lay at the heart of any true development, and the unlikely pair walked away from the encounter with a clear understanding of each other’s intentions.

For the government of Rwanda, universities like Oklahoma Christian could help it achieve its ambitious Vision 2020 targets, the most important of which was to build an information technology-driven marketplace that could transform a poor, agriculturally dependent economy into a middle-income country by 2020. Kagame was a studied proponent of the Four Asian Tigers that had developed advanced, technology-driven economies seemingly overnight, and barring the glaring differences between Rwanda and these countries—their strategic location on global shipping lanes, for instance—he recognized the importance of ICT in a small, isolated country with little mineral wealth. Kagame sought to create an information and communications technology workforce that would not only compete on a regional level, but also excel, ultimately establishing Kigali as an ICT hub of East Africa.

Although Rwandan universities were improving in this regard, most notably the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, they were still well short of the educational capacity needed for a growing pool of talented math and science high school graduates. This was where Kagame saw O’Neal come in: to partner on a scholarship program that would send Rwanda’s smartest math and science students to Oklahoma Christian. O’Neal, meanwhile, recognized the ambition of Rwanda’s bright youth, and what that could mean for the betterment of his student body.

The Ministry of Education (MINEDUC) decided to send Rwanda’s top math and science students to Oklahoma Christian based on national exam scores taken during students’ final year of secondary. They pooled together a group of candidates, and the university sent over faculty members to conduct interviews based on these scores as well as their overall readiness for American schooling, mainly their proficiency in English.

In the fall of 2006, Kagame travelled to Oklahoma City to establish the Rwanda Presidential Scholars (RPS) program with the university, and the inaugural class of ten students began their classes. Amongst the requirements of the deal was for the Rwandan government to pay a quarter of the standard tuition fee, as well as room, board, and airfare costs for each student. And, perhaps most importantly, the students were required to return to Rwanda following graduation and work for a minimum of five years in their native country.

The university’s payoff quickly became evident in the students’ remarkable performance in the classroom, and it didn’t take long for news of the program’s success to begin to circulate. Particularly attentive was a man named Dale Dawson in Little Rock, Arkansas, situated 300 miles to the east. Dawson had recently retired from a successful career in investment banking, and since 2004 had become involved with economic and educational development in Rwanda. He had quickly earned the respect of the country’s leadership, and by the time he heard of Kagame flying to Oklahoma City to launch RPS, he had already been made an advisor on the president’s prominent Presidential Advisory Council. Dawson immediately called O’Neal. “When we heard about [the deal],” Dawson remembers, “We called and said, ‘Tell me how you did that. How did you pull it off?’”

Dawson was not only connected to the right people in Rwanda but had a huge network with universities all over Arkansas and the U.S. One such connection was Hendrix College near Little Rock, a national leader in liberal arts and sciences education. In the summer of 2007, Hendrix sent a team to pick four Rwandan students, using the “structure that was already there,” says Dawson, “[MINEDUC] just did it again for us.” Hendrix accepted the four students in August under the RPS umbrella, and echoing the experience at Oklahoma Christian, the students began to excel and set the tone for the amazing growth of the program that would follow. “That was the thing that made it,” says Dawson. “They were extraordinary—their academic performance was extraordinary.”

One student who embodied this success—who illustrated the ultimate reasons for the RPS in the first place—was Jean Pierre Rukundo. As a rising second-year student in 2008, he was one of the youngest researchers on campus. “To have this ability to work with every physicist and work with every field of physics has opened my eyes to physics,” Rukundo told a Hendrix publication. “Studying physics was lectures and quizzes [in Rwanda]. Right now I feel like this is much more exciting, because I’m doing physics. I see what I learned, and what it can do.”

In 2008, with the help of a generous grant from the William J. Clinton Foundation to help cover student and administrative expenses, Hendrix recruited four more regional schools to join the RPS program. That same year the schools of the newly coined Hendrix Consortium accepted 25 more students, and the number doubled to over 50 in 2009. By 2012, the consortium would grow to include 20 colleges and universities throughout the south, with over 150 students receiving scholarships since the first class of four commenced in 2007.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the east, a famous California Baptist University alum had caught wind of Rwanda’s growing publicity and was making a push for his alma matter to enter the foray. Rick Warren, pastor of the enormous Saddleback Church and author of the best-selling Purpose Driven Life, persuaded the school’s leadership to join the RPS. Cal Baptist accepted its first 12 Rwandans in 2008, and the following year the number nearly doubled.

Since Oklahoma Christian’s inaugural class, three major players had joined the RPS and a sort of competitive collaboration resulted. “I remember sitting in the ministry’s office and it was like doing an National Football League draft,” Dawson laughs. “The government had their rankings based on the exam scores. The number one student went into the Oklahoma pool, the number two student went into the Hendrix pool, the number three student went into the Cal Baptist pool, the number four student went back to Oklahoma Baptist, and so forth.”

At the peak of the program in 2009, all of its students were averaging a remarkable 3.64 grade point average, with 16 students earning perfect 4.0 GPAs since the beginning of their studies. Over 150 students had enrolled in the participating universities, and all signs pointed toward a continued expansion of the program—all accept one. A reassessment by new Minister of Education Charles Murigande had revealed a hard truth typical of developing countries: before any more money could be allocated for scholarships, the needs of basic education had to be the fulfilled.

“In Rwanda, there are about 2,800,000 students in primary and secondary school and around 63,000 students in higher education,” Dr. Murigande told a government publication in March. “Despite this, higher education alone took up approximately 25% percent of the education sector’s entire budget; a figure many would agree represented an imbalance in the distribution of resources.”

Due to a Vision 2020 goal of universal access to primary education by 2015, MINEDUC was forced to reduce funding for students needing support in Rwandan universities, let alone for students in the RPS program. The financial demands of the primary and secondary education sectors were startling: due to the decision to switch the entire education system from French to English, 50,000 teachers all over the country needed English training; funds, meanwhile, were also needed for massive facility improvements, like ICT laboratory models for secondary schools.

The rapid rise of basic education from six to nine to 12 years (12 Year Basic Education was launched in 2011) meant a serious reallocation of the budget was in order. Moreover, the focus on TVET (Technical Vocational Education Training) to provide more widespread human resource development illustrated a demand from the majority of the population, not just a small minority of university students.

According to Dawson, the government’s decision to reduce scholars in the RPS program was, unfortunately, clear-cut. By 2010 the number of students entering the RPS program had declined from a total of 82 in 2009 to 55 in 2010. By 2011, this number had been reduced to 25.

Additionally, says Dawson, “because of the great performance of the Rwandan scholars in the U.S., the scholarship opportunity from U.S. colleges was growing rapidly, requiring an exponential increase in financial resources of the Rwandan government to fund their piece of it.”

To compensate for its drastic budget reallocation, the government began exploring different avenues for its brightest youth to receive top-notch education. That’s when Kagame approached Dawson to set up a training program that would increase the potential of recent high school graduates to receive full scholarships in the US, and consequently decrease the reliance on an overly stretched government budget.

Years before, Dawson had founded a non-profit, Bridge2Rwanda, to link American investors and educators to Rwandan opportunities. B2R set up a training center and launched its first class of over 20 students in 2011. The goal was to prepare these students for American admissions tests such as TOEFL, SAT, GRE, and college applications, to compete with all other international students for scholarships. The first class had showed extraordinary results. All had improved their test scores dramatically, and their application process was streamlined for America’s best universities.

“Literally it meant the world to me,” stresses Joris Cyizere, a B2R Scholar who was accepted into the prestigious Northwestern University just last week after performing exceptionally well on his admission application process. “I’ve always wanted to go to school in the states, but it wasn’t possible to go with the Presidential Scholars program. This is the first step towards my future, proof that I’m heading in the right direction.”

In 2010, Cyizere graduated as Rwanda’s top student in the combination of Math, Physics, and Science (MPC)—an obvious guarantee for an RPS school had he graduated a few years before. His full-ride scholarship to one of the finest universities in the world, however, was achieved entirely independent of the Rwandan government.

Yet the ultimate solution to building a “Singapore of Africa” goes beyond simply exporting its most brilliant minds abroad. To lay the foundations of a true ICT hub, Rwanda must build one from within. The government has drastically improved its ICT infrastructure through projects like the rollout of a 2300km fibre-optic backbone encircling the country, but to get the most out of such investments, it must also educate a highly qualified workforce within its own borders. And Rwanda is making serious strides toward accomplishing this.

On Feb. 14, the world-renowned Carnegie Mellon University commenced its first professional development class in Kigali entitled, “Introduction to Strategic Uses of Digital Information.” This is only a taste of CMU-Rwanda’s ultimate objective, which is to create a Master’s of Sciences in Information Technology, and a Master’s in Electrical and Computer Engineering, due to be introduced in the second year. Both degrees are identical to what is offered at the university’s Pittsburgh campus.

When asked why CMU was drawn to Rwanda in the first place, Dean of Engineering Pradeep Khosla attributed it to Kagame’s dedication. “What got me interested in this project was his vision and his energy in making Rwanda a knowledge-based economy,” he told the New York Times in 2011. “I believe it’s the first American university to have a comprehensive graduate program on African soil that offers indistinguishable degrees.”

Ultimately, Kagame understands that in his country’s pursuit of quality education, each level must be given its due attention. To focus entirely on the top would create nothing but a floating cloud. But to build from the ground up, to strengthen the core of the country’s youth, ensures the strength of the entire system. Up to this point, no one has demonstrated this idea more than the country itself, perhaps best seen through the reallocation of precious funds toward its basic education. But as O’Neal finished his presentation on CASE, it was clear that international partnerships were a critical part to unlocking the enormous potential of Rwanda’s future.


Comments (7)Add Comment
Thank you Mr. Kagame
written by D.Oduki, April 04, 2012
I am a big fan of Mr. Kagame and his values
He does for his people what he would do for his own children.
His dedication and commitment to his country is unmatched in the world.
Mr. Kagame, you make me proud of being an African.
I always use Rwanda as an example when I teach of African development to Europeans.
Other African nations should not be ashamed of learning from Rwanda .
Magnificent story
written by William, April 07, 2012
I'm lost for words! This article should have been a "cover story". It's so refreshing and rather humbling to know that such good things are happening on our continent. Other African countries should borrow a leaf from what Rwanda is doing for its citizens.
indeed Magnificent Story
written by Herrick OCHOM @ Teradata - Rome, Italy, April 09, 2012
I just do not know what to say. Perhaps, I am happy to see an OB from old kampala ss using the school motto to guide his country into the right direction. I am proud of you kagame..
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Yet Kagame’s distinction in African politics was founded by a philosophy shared by his American visitor: that quality education lay at the heart of any true development, and the unlikely pair walked away from the encounter with a clear understanding of each other’s intentions. -
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CASE is due to be launched in 6-12 months and is designed to attract not only Rwandans, but students from all over the region. “They want it to be quality—they don’t want to build a school just to build a school,” says O’Neal.

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