Sept. 16, 2013Vol. 44, Issue 1

Chico’s First Student Fulbrighter

Graduate Student Anna Rushton Spending Academic Year in Rwanda

A day into her first trip to Rwanda in 2011, Chico State student and former staff member Anna Rushton was certain she would be back again someday. She just didn’t know it would be for nine months on a fully funded Fulbright U.S. Student Award.

Rushton, a third-year graduate student in Anthropology, flew to Kigali, Rwanda, in early August to spend the academic year studying the plight of a displaced indigenous group known as Potters. She plans to use her research as the basis of her master’s thesis and of an ethnographic documentary film, which she’ll create through the Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology.

An analyst in the Chico State financial aid office for the last three years, she is the first CSU, Chico student ever to receive the prestigious Fulbright.

“Being awarded a Fulbright has been the biggest achievement of my academic life,” she said in a July interview. “It is very validating and has given me the confidence to pursue a doctoral degree.”

Fulbright grant recipients meet, work with, live with and learn from the people of the host country, 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.

Rushton was among 489 applicants to study in Sub-Saharan Africa; in 2012, about 12 percent of applicants to that region were selected. Approximately 1,200 U.S. Student Awards are given each year. “This was my one shot,” she said, 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.”

Rushton's office at COPORWA, a non-governmental organization dedicated to Rwanda's indigenous people.

Rushton's office at COPORWA, a non-governmental organization dedicated to Rwanda's indigenous people.

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 pots from clay, 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 one 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.” She hopes her research will help inform academia and others to help improve the situation of the Potters.

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 non-governmental organization dedicated to Rwanda’s indigenous people. This time, she has brought her daughter Amaya, 8, with her, who will study in the local English-speaking school.

While her position in the campus financial aid office didn’t offer any direct assistance in securing the Fulbright, for Rushton, it was the perfect job – great employee benefits, a supportive supervisor, and she couldn’t ask for a shorter commute to class.

"I feel so lucky to have worked on campus for three years. As a student, you don't realize everything that goes on behind the scenes."

“I feel so lucky to have worked on campus for three years,” she said. “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, 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. She plans to teach one day and credits the supportive faculty in the CSU, Chico anthropology department with much of her success to date.

“I have been exposed to a wide variety of perspectives in the anthropology department. That benefited me and is something that has helped me along the way,” she said. “I have always been supported here, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, and an employee. It wouldn’t have made sense to go anywhere else.”

Despite the close ties to Chico, Rushton said she felt prepared for the adventure and is looking at the next nine months as much more than academic research: it is a bridge to a new chapter in her life.

“I am ready to go,” she said. “I have been here 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.”

- Sarah Langford, Public Affairs and Publications

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