Carnegie Mellon considers graduate engineering programs in Rwanda

Carnegie Mellon may soon be moving into Rwanda.

The university already has satellite campuses in Portugal, Greece, Australia, Japan, Singapore, and Qatar, and may soon expand to a new continent with a Rwanda program.

Rwanda’s The New Times reported and Carnegie Mellon Provost Mark Kamlet confirmed in Pittsburgh newspapers that the Rwandan government and Carnegie Mellon are exploring the possibility of Carnegie Mellon offering graduate degrees in engineering and information technology in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali.

Rwanda is infamous as the site of one of the worst atrocities in human history, the Rwandan genocide. Over the course of a few months in 1994, the majority Hutus slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in a brutal civil war.

Since then, though, the country has rebuilt itself, attaining political stability and becoming one of the safest countries in Africa.

“Rwandans have gone through one of the worst ordeals in human history, but we are slowly getting ourselves back on our feet,” said Rwandan Alain Kajangwe, a first-year master’s student in information technology at Carnegie Mellon’s Information Networking Institute. “So on the leadership level, we are doing excellent; now each one of us needs to work on their individual contributions in order to make Rwanda a success story.”

Kamlet believes Rwanda is stable and is poised for growth.

“We believe that it is possible and we hope sub-Saharan Africa becomes an important and growing region over the next quarter century,” he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “It is a part of the world that may be much more important 25 years from now than we think today, and this is a chance for Carnegie Mellon to get in on the ground floor.”

With few natural resources, the Rwandan government under the leadership of President Paul Kagame has been trying to transform the country’s economy from primarily agriculture to technology and services. The key to that, many say, is education and technical skill.

“For too long, higher education — and world-class higher education — has been neglected as a part of African development,” said Mauro de Lorenzo, an expert on Rwanda and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “So a university like CMU, which is willing to step up to the plate and invest in that, it’s actually a pretty significant contribution.”

De Lorenzo also notes that this was an effort led by the Rwandan government and Carnegie Mellon — there was no involvement from the United States government. Moreover, Rwanda or a development bank will fund the campus.

The Rwandans he has spoken to are excited about the campus and Carnegie Mellon’s attitude, de Lorenzo said. They believe Carnegie Mellon views the Rwanda campus as an opportunity rather than an act of charity.

“It’s not just sort of smug humanitarianism for its own sake. Not just Carnegie Mellon going and posturing, and making it seem like they’re helping it,” he said. “It’s an actual, real commitment, long-term, which doesn’t treat Africa like some stepchild which doesn’t deserve the same quality.”

De Lorenzo is also excited because Carnegie Mellon is taking action, rather than just talking about Africa and creating awareness of the country’s problems.

“I don’t think increased attention on Africa has much benefit, per se, to Africa. We’re in the middle of a decade where there’s been an unprecedented level to different aspects of African issues, and that’s not what’s changed them for the better,” de Lorenzo said. “What’s important in Africa is not that more American college students are aware; what’s important for Africa is that it’s a more pleasant place for Africans to live in, and an attractive destination for foreigners from around the world to come here and do business.”

Kajangwe, one of six students from Rwanda at Carnegie Mellon, thinks it is better to have education available in Rwanda than to send students abroad. “They say that if you give a man fish you will have fed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish then he will never go hungry again,” he said.

De Lorenzo thinks that having home-grown engineers and a native reserve of well-educated, technical skill will encourage foreign investment, as foreign firms that want to set up business in Rwanda don’t have to import all of the human capital.

One problem, however, is that often Africans will study abroad but don’t return to their home countries because they can get more money for their skills abroad.

Kajangwe, though, intends to return to his home in Rwanda after getting his master’s degree abroad.

He plans on launching a software development company. He’s particularly interested in software applications for mobile phones, as Rwanda’s wireless network makes phones easier to use than computers.