Kepler Kigali Rwanda education © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

I was excited when The Chronicle of Higher Education photo editor Erica Lusk contacted me about documenting a day in the life of Kepler Kigali, one of Rwanda’s newest universities. Kigali’s a small town, so I already knew about Kepler, and their model intrigued me. Kepler uses massive open online courses (MOOCs) in conjunction with in-person teaching so students can earn an associate degree through Southern New Hampshire University. All the students are from disadvantaged backgrounds (they’re genocide orphans, come from very poor families, etc.) and for now, the university is free to its students.

Kepler Kigali Rwanda higher education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Kepler Kigali Rwanda higher education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

I was sent to photograph during student orientation week. When I was an undergrad, I remember orientation covering topics like responsible drinking, how to register for classes, and where to access psychological services. At Kepler, the day’s orientation included a presentation on self-confidence and personal responsibility.

Kepler Kigali Rwanda higher education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Kepler Kigali Rwanda higher education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Kepler Kigali Rwanda higher education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

After the morning’s lectures, all 50 students broke for lunch. Everyone carried their plastic chairs from the lecture room to a tent outside, where they sat and enjoyed a hot lunch and drinks provided by Kepler Kigali.

Kepler Kigali Rwanda higher education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Kepler Kigali Rwanda higher education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

The skies were clear and beautiful when lunch started. But this being rainy season, a tremendous storm poured down after about 30 minutes. I really felt like the tent might blow away. All the women scattered back into the orientation building as soon as signs of a storm appeared. Most of the men stayed under the tent until they absolutely had to leave. I stayed with them – good pictures, right? – and hoped they would go inside soon.

Kepler Kigali Rwanda education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Back inside, one young woman laughed at another who had left a banana on a seat for her friend. Even though the students had just met a few days earlier, they all seemed like fast friends, all happiness and excitement. I talked with several students who were beyond thrilled to be going to college – they hadn’t thought it would really be possible for them due to the financial burden. One of the Kepler administrators I spoke with said it will cost about $1,000 per yer to educate each student.

Kepler Kigali Rwanda higher education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Kepler Kigali Rwanda higher education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

During an orientation workshop earlier in the week, students wrote down the names of their male and female role models. Among the most popular? Nelson Mandela and Jeannette Kagame, the First Lady of Rwanda.

Kepler Kigali Rwanda education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

The actual classroom space was still under construction when I visited, so I spent some time documenting the progress. In the picture above, a welder constructs a table. All furniture for Kepler Kigali is custom-made because it’s about the same price or slightly less expensive than importing it.

Kepler Kigali Rwanda education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Kepler Kigali Rwanda education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

20130611Kepler Kigali Rwanda education photograph © Laura Elizabeth Pohl_Kepler_32_blog

Kepler Kigali is the brainchild of Generation Rwanda, a nonprofit that has been offering university scholarships to underprivileged Rwandan students since 2004. A Generation Rwanda graduate made and gave this token of thanks to the program’s staff. He graduated from a Rwandan university in 2012 with a civil engineering degree.