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How Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes started the first women's college in Rwanda

Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes started the first women's college in Rwanda, and plans to grow a network through East Africa.
Akilah Institute founder Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes with students at the Akilah Institute. (Photo by Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes)
Akilah Institute founder Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes with students at the Akilah Institute.

March is Women’s History Month, and women have come a long way since the days of fighting for the vote. But women around the nation and around the globe are still fighting for equality in many realms, including in education, technology, equal pay, campus sexual assault, and beyond. All month long, is highlighting women leaders who are fighting for the women’s rights issues of 2015. 

When Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2006, she moved to Rwanda with no friends and no job, knowing only that she wanted to help in some way. The country was still reeling from the effects of the Rwandan genocide just over a decade before, and Hughes soon realized that women in particular were trying to support their families but often did not have the education and skills required to get better jobs for themselves. 

With that in mind, Hughes decided to start the first -- and only -- all-women's college in Rwanda in 2008. In 2010, the Akilah Institute for women opened its doors to the public. Today, Akilah just celebrated its fifth anniversary in January, and the organization has campuses in Rwanda and neighboring Burundi (where Akilah is also the first-ever women's college). Hughs also hopes to grow Akilah into a network of campuses serving women throughout east Africa. 

Hughes talked to msnbc about how she started Akilah, its growth, and the women the organization has impacted. 

What inspired you to start the Akilah Institute?

I moved to Rwanda from the United States when I was 21. I didn't have any job plans or a single friend in the country. I wanted to start a life in Rwanda, a country still recovering from the devastating 1994 genocide in which one million innocent men, women and children were slaughtered. When I arrived in the capital of Kigali in 2006, Rwandans were intensely focused on moving forward, passionate about reconciling the perpetrators of the country with their victims, building modern institutions on traditional values, and creating prosperity for all of its citizens. During two years of volunteering with street children, I met countless young women who had survived the genocide and were struggling to provide for their families. They didn’t have the skills or education necessary to find meaningful employment and education was an expensive option limited to a privileged few. I decided to start the Akilah Institute to prepare young women for leadership roles and professional careers within the fastest growing sectors of the East African economy. Akilah students select to major in Entrepreneurship, Information Systems or Hospitality Management, and most of our students are the first in their family to attend higher education. Our mission was to create an academic institution that would provide a bridge from education to meaningful employment and to empower young women from low-income communities to launch professional careers and support their families.

When starting the institute, what were some of the obstacles and barriers in your way? How did you overcome them?

The Akilah Institute opened in January 2010. We had no textbooks or computers and only a few thousand dollars in the bank. We didn't know how we would make payroll the next month, but we steadfastly clung to our vision. We are now in our 6th year of operations and we have grown due to the support of individuals around the world. It was a great deal of work to build our academic model. We didn’t want to just impose a system of education from other parts of the world. We have spent years working closely with local business, government and community leaders to create a system of education that effectively prepares our alumna for regional careers. Many of our students are coming from rural homes and secondary schools with very basic resources and facilities. Most students use a computer for the first time when they come to Akilah! So this creates more challenges for our instructors as they work tirelessly to help them bridge this knowledge gap and succeed in Akilah’s advanced curriculum.

How many women have graduated from the Akilah Institute since you launched in 2008? How many women are currently enrolled?

Akilah is now an accredited college and we offer diplomas in Entrepreneurship, Information Systems, and Hospitality Management, the three highest-growth sectors of the East African economy. Sixty-eight percent of Akilah students are the first women in their families to attend college. Most enter timid and unsure of themselves, but graduate as determined, empowered, confident young women, ready to launch their careers and reinvest in their families and their country. Ninety percent of alumnae find jobs within six months of graduation, where they earn incomes that are five times more than the national average. Ninety-seven women have graduated from Akilah, and in 2015 we will have a total of 550 students on two campuses.

By focusing on educating women and girls, what kind of impact has Akilah made so far?

Sixty-eight percent of our students are the first women in their family graduate college. In addition, the first two classes of Akilah students graduated with an average 90% job placement. Women on average will invest 90% of their income into their families, as opposed to 30-40% for men. Educated women are less likely to contract HIV, and will also earn more money and have fewer and healthier children so we are very encouraged by the fact that we have reached hundreds of women who may not have pursued higher education if not for Akilah. We are also proud of our Social Change Project, which is a mandatory component of our curriculum. Students identify a social need, develop a solution to address it, and then put that solution into action. By sensitizing our students to the needs of the community, we ensure that the professionals we develop are prepared to give back.

Can you share some success stories of your students? What have they gone on to do after graduating from Akilah?

Ninah Kenyana graduated from Akilah Rwanda in 2012 with a diploma in Hospitality Management. Ninah was born to a large family of six children. Her family tended a small garden and sold what they planted in order for all six children to go to school. Since graduating from Akilah, she’s been on an upward trajectory at the Serena in Kigali, the only five-star hotel in Rwanda’s capital. Ninah began as a phone operator right out of graduation, where her supervisors saw great potential in her ability to interact with hotel clients. After six months, she was promoted to work at the front desk, greeting and assisting the Serena’s top-notch clientele, including government ministers, business leaders, and heads of state. Her responsibilities continued to grow and she now works both at reception and in management as the supervisor of phone operators. At the front desk, she manages a team of nine and is an esteemed and valued member of staff.

After graduating from Akilah Rwanda in 2012, Providence Ingabire was employed full time by Individual Tours, a tour company in Kigali that caters to German and English speaking clients. She worked there for eleven months before moving on to Primate Safaris, one of the largest and oldest tour companies in Rwanda, where Providence saw many opportunities to rise with the pioneering organization. Akilah has more than 60 employment partners in East Africa. Our alumnae work for financial institutions, telecom companies, fashion brands, eco tourism companies, the United Nations, and more.

You started Akilah in Rwanda in 2008, but have since also expanded to Burundi. What is your vision for Akilah’s growth in the future? 

There is incredible potential and opportunity for growth and expansion at Akilah. We’ve received inquiries to expand to other countries. Our vision is to build future generations of women leaders and professionals in East Africa through the development of a network of campuses and graduate 1,000 students by the year 2020. As we scale Akilah’s educational model across East Africa, we’ll need resources to build computer labs, hire the best instructors, and develop diploma programs that effectively address the needs of the fastest growing sectors of local economies. We were able to open a second campus in Burundi due to the generous support of the Segal Family Foundation and a commitment at the Clinton Global Initiative.

March 8 is International Women’s Day, when many around the world will focus on highlighting the needs of women around the globe. What do you want people to know about the women of Rwanda?

In 2008, Rwanda achieved a monumental milestone: the first county in the world to have a female majority in Parliament. (Women make up 18% of the U.S. Congress). Despite the terrible tragedy of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has become a role model for womens political and economic empowerment in Africa. Our students undergo a visible transformation during their three years on campus. Many enter as timid, uncertain young women from rural Rwanda and Burundi. But during their time at Akilah, their knowledge and self-esteem grow, and they graduate as determined, empowered, confident professionals. They’re ready to launch their careers, take control of their own lives, and impact their families and their country.

And lastly: what’s your hope for the next generation of women?

My hope is that the next generation of young women in East Africa have the same opportunities as young men so that they can play a part in creating jobs, building businesses, and alleviating poverty in their communities.


Learn more about The Akilah Institute here. You can also follow Akilah on Twitter @akilahinstitute.

Read the rest of the profiles in our Women’s History Month series here