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Besides all her work on the solar power and clean water team, sophomore midfielder Erica Higa also taught volleyball and soccer.

Credit: Courtesy of Kerry Major Carr

As spring semester ended and students prepared to embark on their various summer journeys, one women’s soccer player had reason to be especially excited.

Erica Higa, a sophomore midfielder for the Red and Blue, traveled to Rwanda alongside fellow Penn Athletics representative coach Kerry Major Carr of women’s volleyball and around ten other Penn students and faculty as part of the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Rwanda Gashora Program.

The program was created to explore the possibilities of using solar energy and information communication technology in low-resource communities in developing countries. Students who participate in the program take a course in the spring, followed by the two-week summer trip to Rwanda.

When Higa first heard about the opportunity to visit the Central African nation, she was as surprised as she was excited — the Californian was actually in the middle of an interview for an Engineers without Borders trip to Guatemala.

Once the group arrived in Rwanda on May 17, the first task was to evaluate the project sites and adjust based on conditions. The three main projects students participated in were purifying water at the health clinic, installing solar lights for the pathways at the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology (GGAST), and routing power and internet access for the primary school students and teachers.

One aspect of the trip that struck Higa as particularly fascinating was the nature of the food supply.

“In Philly, there is a ton of variety in the types of food available, but in the rural village of Gashora, Rwanda, it is all farm-to-table,” Higa said. “You literally eat what you cultivate. The food was great!”

As part of the solar panel team, Higa had the difficult task of installing solar power to an area that had little to no resources currently in place to do so. In an effort to explain some of the finer points of the project to the Gashora Girls, Higa also did her own class with the girls, describing how the solar lights worked.

Although Higa worked tirelessly as a part of the solar panel and water filtration team, she also added her own Penn Athletics flair to the trip.

“Between me and Coach Carr, we brought volleyballs, nets, soccer balls, and hand pumps to give to the community in Gashora,” Higa explained. “At GGAST, a few of the Penn students and I were fortunate enough to play with their [soccer] team. They were great and we had a lot of fun! Football is a huge sport in Rwanda and around the world, so we saw a lot of fields, often with makeshift goals made out of tree trunks, occupied by children and adult men playing football.”

The trip also included a sobering visit to two Rwandan Genocide memorials, something that Coach Carr discusses more extensively in her blog on Penn Athletics’ website. The travelers saw the skulls of over 250,000 victims, as well as touching videos from survivors detailing what had happened to them and their villages.

In the end, the impact of the trip went far beyond the enjoyable sport-playing and teaching, and even beyond the engineering projects.

“I was immensely appreciative for all the friendships I made,” Higa said. “A few sentences for the DP can’t do justice in explaining how amazing these girls are. I am incredibly humbled and grateful to Rwanda and GGAST for letting me visit and learn about their amazing country and culture.

“This was the first step to me applying the skills I am learning in Penn’s Engineering school to improve the lives of those around the world, and I intend to stay in contact and continue to support GGAST in the future.”

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