Landing in Rwanda
Graduate student Anna Rushton is Chico State’s first student Fulbrighter
by Sarah Langford | Photograph by Beiron Andersson
On a warm day in August, Chico State student and former staff member Anna Rushton put the last of her belongings in storage and boarded a plane for Africa. She would spend the next nine months in Rwanda, studying one of Africa’s most disadvantaged groups.
Rushton, a third-year graduate student in anthropology and former analyst in the Financial Aid and Scholarship Office, is the recipient of the Fulbright U.S. Student grant. She’s spending the academic year in Rwanda studying a displaced indigenous group known as Potters; this will become the basis for her master’s thesis and an ethnographic documentary film. She is the University’s first student Fulbright recipient.
Referred to as “Fulbrighters,” grant recipients meet, work with, live with, and learn from the people of their host countries, sharing daily experiences and engaging in the community to promote peace, understanding, and respect. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the program covers round-trip transportation to and from the country, room and board, a living stipend, health insurance, and other items.
“Being awarded a Fulbright has been the biggest achievement of my academic life,” says Rushton. “It is very validating and has given me the confidence to pursue a doctoral degree.”
Being awarded a Fulbright has been the biggest achievement of my academic life.
Rushton was among 489 applicants to study in sub-Saharan Africa; in 2012, about 12 percent of applicants to that region were selected. About 1,200 U.S. Student grants are given each year. Rushton’s full grant amount came to just under $26,000. “This was my one shot,” she says, admitting that she fought back tears of joy when she learned the news. “Otherwise, I was going to max out on student loans and hope for the best. So it was the best feeling.”
She learned about the Potters on her first trip to Rwanda in 2011 with a group called Global Youth Connect, a human rights and genocide prevention organization. Named for their adopted livelihood of making and selling clay pots, the Potters are an indigenous people who previously lived as foragers and hunters in the forests surrounding Lake Kivu. Today, they live throughout Rwanda and face marginalization, poor health and living conditions, a loss of livelihood, and dislocation from traditional territories.
According to Rushton, very little published research exists on the group, “usually just a small paragraph or sentence or even little footnotes in articles and books on Rwanda. Academics and researchers know they’re there and might mention them, but they’re not really focusing on them because they’re such a small part of the population.”
So small, in fact, they make up just a quarter of 1 percent, about 30,000 of the 11.3 million people living in Rwanda. “Most of the research in Rwanda is done on the genocide, and they usually focus on the Hutu and Tutsi and those populations,” says Rushton. She hopes her research will inform academia and others to help improve the Potters’ situation.
Rushton’s interest in working with people from other cultures and countries has manifested in numerous ways, particularly on campus. As a student, she has volunteered as a mentor to international students, served as an English-language partner, and hosted international students at her home.
She also co-taught an upper-division anthropology class on Africa with CSU, Chico anthropology professor David Eaton in 2012. Eaton says Rushton’s open curiosity, love of learning, and ethic of service for those facing basic health and education challenges will serve her well as a Fulbrighter.
“Rwanda is a fascinating and beautiful country navigating rapid development after profound historical trauma,” he says. “Of course, visitors like Anna have to learn over time how to understand social dynamics and expectations in a world very different from California.”
A Chico native, Rushton fell in love with anthropology after participating in sweat lodge and tipi ceremonies with the local Native American community. Those experiences and others sparked an interest in the ways that indigenous groups adapt to rapidly changing landscapes and societies while trying to honor their past. She has visited Rwanda twice as a volunteer with COPORWA, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to Rwanda’s indigenous people. This time, she brought her 8-year-old daughter Amaya with her. Amaya is studying in the local English-speaking school.
While Rushton says her position in the campus financial aid office didn’t offer any direct assistance in securing the Fulbright, it did provide her with insight into the University she has called home for nearly seven years. In Rushton’s eyes, the job was the perfect gig—great employee benefits, a supportive supervisor, and a short commute to class.
“I feel so lucky to have worked on campus for three years,” she says. “As a student, you don’t realize everything that goes on behind the scenes. The faculty and staff at this University are so dedicated to their jobs and to the students. It’s really amazing.”
With two degrees nearly under her belt—she received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 2007—Rushton views these nine months as a Fulbright fellow as the catalyst for her career. She is applying for doctorate programs and hopes to begin a program in fall 2014. Her sights are set on the University of Pennsylvania; the American University in Washington, D.C.; and University of Massachusetts for their strong anthropology programs. She plans to teach one day and credits the supportive faculty in the CSU, Chico anthropology department with much of her success thus far.
“I have been exposed to a wide variety of perspectives in the anthropology department,” notes Rushton. “That benefited me and is something that has helped me along the way. I have always been supported here, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, and as an employee. It wouldn’t have made sense to go anywhere else.”
While receiving the Fulbright certainly holds great personal meaning for Rushton, its campuswide significance is not lost on Eaton, who points out that CSU, Chico has long been a place where students can soar.
“As we all know, serious students can get an excellent education here and find the support to do first-rate original research,” he says. “Thanks to the dedication of our faculty, staff, and administration, students can aim very high indeed and hit the mark.
“The award is also encouraging to me as more evidence of the University’s strengths in international and global development studies, given what I think is their importance in an increasingly connected and interdependent world.”
For Rushton, the time she’ll spend in Africa will not only prepare her academically for what lies ahead, but will lay the foundation for the rest of her life. Despite her close ties to Chico, she felt prepared for the adventure.
“I am ready to go,” she says. “I have been [in Chico] a long time and I am ready to go somewhere else and have new experiences. My family is here and this is my home, so it is a little bit sad. But mostly I am just excited for new opportunities and experiences.”