Published: April 14, 2020

Aileen Pierce standing next to a sign that reads "educating the next tech leaders of Africa."

Aileen Pierce, TAM associate director, senior instructor with CU engineering and a member of ATLAS faculty since 2004, recently returned from Rwanda, where she taught an advanced mobile application development course at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Africa in Kigali, Rwanda.

Pierce also teaches mobile application development courses for the Technology, Arts & Media program, as well as web and front-end development courses.  During the spring 2020 semester, she took a teaching sabbatical to participate in CMU Africa's engineering master's programs.

In the interview that follows, Pierce describes her eight-week teaching experience and shares her impressions of a country poised to become a center on the continent for technology, innovation and tourism, while continuing to heal from the 1994 genocide, when more than 800,000 people lost their lives.  

How did the opportunity to teach at CMU Africa come about?
I knew two CMU Africa faculty members from CU Boulder, from the days when one of my courses was cross-listed with the Interdisciplinary Telecom Program (now the Technology, Cybersecurity and Policy program), and one of my husband’s business partners taught several semesters at CMU Africa. So, the opportunity arose through those connections. My husband also taught at CMU Africa during the mini semester.

What was the content of your class?
The class focused on Android app development, utilizing an Agile software development methodology. Originally my class of seven students included only one woman, but I recruited another, making eight students total.

Were your students primarily from Rwanda?
Fifty percent of my students were from Rwanda; the rest were from other African countries.

Did your students have the background they needed to succeed in your course?
CMU Africa is the best master’s program for electrical and computer engineering and IT in the entire continent of Africa. The students were highly motivated and worked extremely hard. If they weren’t familiar with a topic, they put in the work to learn it. 

Internet access throughout Africa varies. What was your experience? 
CMU Africa has excellent Internet access in terms of speed and reliability. Students relied on the university’s Internet access and were often on campus seven days per week as many do not have Internet access at home. Other places in Kigali were hit or miss, including at the apartment I rented. There were many times the speed slowed to a crawl, or went down completely, and there were occasional power outages as well. Throughout Rwanda, Internet penetration is only a little over 50 percent and smartphone usage is under 20 percent. Hopefully efforts such as Mara phones, the first smartphones engineered and manufactured in Rwanda, along with a continued focus on providing affordable access will help bring access and opportunities to more of Rwanda’s population.

What did your students say they wanted to do after graduating? 
Students are concerned about getting jobs after graduating, but they’re also focused on how their work will help Rwanda and other African countries. The students see themselves as Africa’s future leaders. Americans often think that everyone’s goal is to come to the U.S., but the majority of students I interacted with really wanted to give back to their countries.

What surprised you about Rwanda? 
Kigali is the cleanest city I’ve ever been to in terms of litter — there wasn’t any, thanks to workers who keep the city clean. I also thought I might feel nervous walking around a city where police carry machine guns, but I felt very safe. There’s also a plethora of excellent restaurants in Rwanda, and I enjoyed a wide range of cuisines. One of my favorites was a Ugandan dish called a “rolex,” an egg and vegetable combination wrapped in a chapati.

The country has one national language, Kinyarwanda, which is an advantage. Uganda has more than 50 tribes and 39 languages, which makes spoken communication more difficult, affects education and the arts, and makes it harder to build a cohesive country.

Did you get a sense that Rwanda is growing economically?
The progress made in the 25 years since the Rwandan genocide is amazing and speaks to the Rwandan people’s resilience, motivation and willingness to work towards a brighter future. There’s a focus on making Rwanda a leading country in East Africa. A new convention center is being built, along with a new airport. There are many world-class hotels and a golf course. These amenities are enabling Rwanda to host international events and conferences and, along with a university like Carnegie Mellon, position Rwanda as a center for technology, innovation, and tourism in the continent. However, 39 percent of Rwanda’s population still live on under $2 per day and you can’t drink the tap water anywhere, so there’s clearly more that needs to be done. With Rwanda’s young, motivated population, I’m optimistic about the country’s future. 

Where did you travel/visit in Africa while you were there? 
I travelled to Lake Kivu on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and saw the golden monkeys in Volcanoes National Park Rwanda. I also did a gorilla trek in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. And at the end of the semester I went on a five-day safari in Tanzania in the Serengeti National Park. I also spent three days in Cape Town, South Africa, before heading home.

How much awareness and concern was there about the coronavirus in Rwanda before you left? Were you prepared for the situation here?
While teaching at CMU Africa, the coronavirus was in China and then Italy, but it hadn’t reached the U.S. or Africa. During my two weeks of travel afterwards, universities started sending students home and switching to remote classes. Africa has more experience with viruses, having dealt with Ebola and others, and it started health screening at airports before there were any reported cases. Once the country started reporting positive cases, they moved quickly to shut down schools and restaurants. I decided to return to the U.S. early with my family; we left Africa on March 18 and arrived in Colorado on March 20. DIA and Logan airports were emptier than I’ve ever seen at a U.S. airport, and I was surprised there were no health screenings at Logan or DIA airports. 

So you arrived back just days, before the stay-at-home order?
Yes, it made our return quite strange. I was looking forward to reconnecting with ATLAS faculty and students when I returned, but for now that is all being done online. 

Do you anticipate going back in the future to teach or travel?
Yes. I’d love to go back and teach again at CMU Africa and to spend more time traveling around Africa. Getting to live in and interact with people in another culture really drives home that, as different as things may appear, we really have more in common than we have differences. The time I spent in Rwanda really broadened my world view, and I highly encourage others to do the same if they have the opportunity.