Learning Through Service: Women's Soccer's Journey Through Rwanda

Three members of the Penn Women’s Soccer team are currently abroad with the 2017 Rwanda Gashora Program, a service learning course through Penn Engineering. For the next 18 days, Kristen Miller, Erica Higa, and Kiera Towell will be working in collaboration with their Penn Engineering team and the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology (GGAST) to bring solar energy and information communication technology projects to life in Gashora, Rwanda (Africa).

Kiera Towell, a goalkeeper for Penn Women’s Soccer, is a rising junior from Edmonds, Washington studying Materials Science and Engineering. This is her first time traveling to Rwanda and she is very excited about meeting and working with the girls from GGAST and seeing the sights and culture of Rwanda.

Kristen Miller, rising senior and forward for Penn Women’s Soccer, studies Biological Basis of Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences. This is her first out of country experience! She is looking forward to seeing a new country, making new friends from GGAST, and learning some engineering while serving the community of Gashora.

Erica Higa, a forward/midfielder for Penn Women’s Soccer, is a rising senior from Los Altos, California studying Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. She traveled to Gashora with the 2016 Rwanda Gashora Program and is returning this year as the Student Leader. She is incredibly excited to see the friends she made last year and continue to learn hands on engineering practices through service!

Princess Aghayere, a member of Penn Women’s Basketball, is also a part of the Penn Engineering team in Gashora, Rwanda.

These members of Penn Athletics will be chronicling their journey with a daily blog.


We have arrived!! After 22 hours of flying from Philadelphia to Doha, Qatar to Kigali, Rwanda we drove for an hour and a half to Gashora, Rwanda, where we will be spending the next 18 days!

First impressions:

Kristen screamed and ran out of her bathroom at the hotel after seeing a pink salamander. Turns out they’re great for keeping the mosquitos away – she loves them now!

Erica’s sweet tooth got the best of her – she tried to buy some “andazii,” or Rwandan pancake-like dough balls, but she accidentally bought meatballs. Guess she’ll have to work on her Kinyarwanda, the local language!

Kiera got her coffee fix with “African Coffee,” which turns out to be ginger with a splash of mocha. Good thing she likes ginger!

Tomorrow we will be exploring the local schools and the Gashora Health Center to survey the sites where we will be working on multiple engineering projects. This includes the clean water pipeline from Lake Rumira to the Health Center.

Read more here and here.


Today we got a snapshot of all the places we will be working at for the next 17 days.

First, we went to the Gashora Health Center where we got to see the progress of the water pipeline. When we entered, the clinic was full of people with their jerrycans of water. We learned that because the clinic does not have access to water year-round they require patients to bring their own jerrycan of water in order to receive treatment. This means that the patients must walk about ¾ of a mile to get to the lake and fill the can, and then walk back—uphill—while sick. This motivated us even more to finish the project.

Next, we made our first visit to GGAST to meet the 22 girls that will be working with us. We got to know them over their typical lunch of rice, meat, and potatoes. Yum!

After lunch we visited the three local primary schools to evaluate their needs and plan out how we can help. It was humbling to see how well these schools function with up to 4,000 students, about 40 teachers, no electricity, and no water. As we drove up to the schools the students rushed to come see us and started saying all of the English phrases that they had learned. We were happy to see the red and blue poles of the volleyball net that was brought last year by former volleyball coach Kerry Carr.

Tomorrow we get to start working on the water project at the Health Center bright and early!


It’s been a long couple of days full of hard work and fun!

Our team spent Friday and Saturday laying nearly 1.6km of piping down from Lake Rumira to the Gashora Health Center. It was a community-wide effort! Gashora men often started working before dawn, taking the lead on connecting the pipes, while our Penn Engineering team was joined by tons of local children who helped us carry the pipes. In just two days, we’ve nearly completed laying the pipeline. This week we look forward to installing the solar panels, pump, and storage tank and seeing some flowing water!

Sunday was spent at Akagera National Park, on the northeastern border of Rwanda. We got to see zebras, giraffes, antelope, hundreds of species of birds, crocodiles, hippos, monkeys and more! Furthermore, we learned that the park today is 1/3 the size of what it used to be. Leading up to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis, thousands of Rwandans left the country in search of safety. When they returned, the government of Rwanda divided the park into farmlands, providing private property for the refugees. This is an incredible gesture of recognizing basic human rights, and we hope that the world can learn from Rwanda’s example.

That’s a #WRAAP for our first week here. We look forward to another two weeks in Rwanda!


Making more and more progress each day! We spent Monday and Tuesday morning at the Gashora Health Center continuing the pipeline project. On Monday morning, we rolled the storage tank over to its platform and discovered it had some large dents.. How to problem solve? Throw Erica in there and roll it like a hamster wheel! Helps to be small!  As of now, all of the pipes are in the trench and covered; tomorrow we will install the pump and solar panel and test the system for flowing water! It’s amazing how much has been achieved in just four days of work. All credit goes to the Gashora community for their hard work, diligence, and guidance. Akazikeza!! // Good job!!

We have also had the chance to spend a lot more time at the Gashora Girls Academy lately. We’ve been able to work in small groups on engineering and computer science projects that the girls requested of us. Kiera is doing a great job of working with them on a robotic car project, using a Raspberry Pi computer processing unit and Python coding – check out her picture! After classes and projects, we unwound with some SOCCER! The Gashora Girls had an inter-dorm competition, and the crowd was going nuts! The support and comradery between the girls is incredible and so much fun to be a part of. After their game, we got a chance to play in a scrimmage with the teachers. Kristen scored the first goal, but Erica’s team ended up winning the game!

Looking forward to another busy day ahead!


Quick update on the pipeline: we helped put in the solar panels this morning. Only a few work days away from running water – stay tuned!

We had the chance to work alongside our small groups of Gashora girls this afternoon on our respective Raspberry Pi projects. This was a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved to apply theory from the classroom towards hands-on learning. The girls learned quickly, asked thoughtful questions, and suggested very creative ideas for how to build on the projects we had planned. Together, we built circuits, learned the Python programming language, and laughed a lot!

For dinner, we had the long-awaited local chicken. It was delicious! Much leaner than anything in the US – truly “free range.” During our trip thus far, we have also been able to try foods such as local goat, plantains, tree tomato (a fruit that is very different than a vine tomato – Kristen’s favorite!), passion fruit, fresh bananas, and cassava leaf stew.

It’s always sunny in Gashora! Never a dull moment over here!