Duke Graduate to Global Health Fellow: A Gashora Alumna Journey

"To me, GGAST means opportunity. I cannot overstate how much I did not know about the world, about myself and my peers before I came to GGAST. At Gashora, I got to try my hand at business, leadership, and innovation! I have been given the opportunity to be more than I ever thought I could be. An experience like that is quite difficult to forget."

Meet Christine, a graduate from Duke University who is currently working in Rwanda for a local NGO while serving as a Global Health Corps Fellow.  She graduated from Gashora Girls Academy in 2016, where she helped found Gashora Gold Peanut Butter, which is still processed and sold today around the country.  She has continued to run past her self-imposed boundaries and truly embodies what it means to be a Gashora Girl! You can't help but be inspired by her passion and enthusiasm.

Please introduce yourself.

Hello, I’m Christine Ashimwe, and I was part of the 2016 Gashora Girls Academy graduating class. I am absolutely obsessed with anime and comic books; webtoons are my guilty pleasure.

You graduated from Duke University in June of 2021, tell us about where you were and how you first heard of your acceptance to Duke?

Duke was one of the best things I never knew I needed. Full disclosure, when I was at Gashora, Duke was not on my mind at all. I had always wanted to go to Yale. However, with the college application dates rolling in, our University Counselor, Mr. John, convinced me to apply to Duke. And wouldn’t you know, I got in! When my admission email came, I was at an entrepreneurs’ Bootcamp and well into the heat of the competition. I completely forgot to check my email! After winning the competition, I received a call from Mr. John telling me to check my email. I’d gotten in!

Your degree was in Visual and Media. What first drew you to this major? What did you see yourself doing?

Visual & Media studies was a 180-degree change for me, as I had always wanted to be a scientific researcher. Viruses! I loved those little guys. I was utterly fascinated by how they worked and reproduced so fast and how they had managed to survive through millions of years in some of the worst conditions imaginable. I was so into viruses that I was sure I would major in Biology. And I did–for a while. In fact, before my first day of classes, I had already secured a position at the Duke Vulcan lab, working on crossing different genomes in insects. I worked there for two months and became miserable. I missed being out and about, being in the sun, and doing work that directly impacted people. Everything we did at the lab was interesting theoretically; however, I felt there was no direct impact on people.

The class I enjoyed most at that time was a documentary studies class. I asked the professor, Professor Chris Sims, for advice on career paths that would allow me to take courses like his. He helped guide me to Visual & Media Studies. I liked that the degree would let me take classes in virtually any department, and I did! I loved political science, accounting, marketing, computer science, history, languages, photography, videography, and my personal favorite: advertising! I fell in love with soaking in knowledge from different disciplines and understanding how the world worked from new perspectives. I have no regrets at all.

Looking back on your time there, what were the biggest challenges? How did you adjust to life abroad?

"My advice to my Gashora sisters is to not let anyone define success for you. Dare to be unconventional."

The biggest challenge studying abroad was adjusting to life in the U.S. In Rwanda, no one ever talked to me about the fact that I was black; I was just another Rwandese girl. However, in the U.S., I was Black. Even in an extremely liberal campus like Duke, there were still ethnic divisions. Then there were Africans like me, who did not understand the concept of race. The divide became even more apparent when we left campus for downtown Durham, where we could REALLY feel that we were different. I remember going to a restaurant with my best friend Gabi, who is white, and I was the only person of color at the restaurant that was not part of the staff. I felt scared.

But over time, I invested time into reading up on U.S. history and visiting the documentary studies center where I learned about the city and politics through wonderful curators. Suddenly, some things made sense. I began to understand why there was a vast divide between the white and black neighborhoods in Durham. Getting a firm understanding of how things worked made it easy to feel at home on campus.

What do you think were your biggest successes?

I see my most significant success as pivoting from the sciences to a liberal arts education. I was quite frightened to make the switch and agonized over the choice. I could hear the voice of my family saying, “did you really go to the U.S. to become a photographer? You were so smart.” These voices were not all imaginary either; I did have people I cared about sit me down and tell me how crazy my decision was.

Taking that bold step to follow my newfound passion was incredible! Finding my new passions and not being afraid to try my hand at new things gave me the confidence to know I could do anything. My choice was validated when I made it on the dean’s list for a couple of semesters and received a nomination as one of the most promising students in the department.

Did you have any internships while at university?

I had a couple of internships thanks to Professor Edward Timke, which is where I fell in love with advertising. I interned at the Philharmonic Paris during a study abroad program and interned in Ghana at a few advertising agencies. However, my personal favorite was interning at Goodby Silverstein & Partners (GS&P)! If you haven’t heard of them, they are behind the famous Got Milk? Campaign. GS&P is full of incredible talent from all walks of life; they believe that the best insights come from people with no advertising background. I worked with copywriters that used to be comedians, actors, sociologists, and even some economists.

I worked in the strategy department for some of their biggest clients. As a strategist, I conducted studies, interviews and even pitched my insights to the GS&P board of directors and staff. I’ll never forget the time Mr. Silverstein himself looked at me and said he was proud of my work. Mr. Silverstien spots global talent for a living, and he was proud of my work! That experience was life-changing. It made me believe that I could do this advertising thing! Unfortunately, my visa made it difficult for me to find full-time employment. Students without science degrees only have one year of post-graduate employment benefits. It was still an incredible experience. I appreciate GS&P putting the full weight of their legal department to attempt to hire me. Many of the people at these firms became mentors and lifelong friends.

You have returned to Rwanda since graduating and now work for a non-profit focused on improving the quality and accessibility of healthcare through advocacy, education, and training. What is your role there, and what does that entail? What does a typical day look like for you?

"I love that we get to work with some of the most underrepresented communities in Rwanda and make sure that they know their rights. In my particular role, I love improving the work culture. It makes me so happy to be in a unique position where I can pitch ideas and problem solve daily, to be the person that goes, ”What if we did this?”

I now work as a Knowledge Management and Learning Officer at an NGO in Rwanda. A big part of my role is to build and define the department and build a database that will allow the staff to have a global understanding of all the work that the organization does. To do this, I need to collect information on all the current and past projects. A typical day involves arranging meetings with project coordinators to discuss what went right, wrong, or needs to be improved. I then collect all that information, feed it to a repository that we are building and move on to sorting the mountain of information that we have in a way that makes sense.

I also look for ways that the organization can become a better place to work. I find time to sit down with people and ask them what they would like to see improved. Just yesterday, one of the interns approached me and said they would like to have learning sessions with staff where they can learn how to write reports properly, formulate projects, and approach lobbyists. I pitched the idea to my director, and she loved it. We will be running masterclasses every week, and she is going to be the first teacher. Soon, we will also be doing our first thematic meetings where we’ll gather all the staff to hear about all the work we do around Gender-Based Violence. Exciting stuff!

You are a fellow at Global Health Corps. Tell us about their work and your role? How do you balance both your job and your fellowship?

Global Health Corps brings together passionate leaders to work in African health institutions for a year. They are the reason I am at my current job right now. My work as a strategist lends itself well to other fields of work such as knowledge management and consulting. As a fellow assigned to work at my NGO, I am involved in every aspect and contribute to its continuation. The fellowship has professional development and give-back component, so I have to take time off work to attend the sessions and be part of the activities.

You have an evident passion for social justice and leadership. What does that mean to you? Who has been your inspiration?

"I am now an auntie to a beautiful two-month-old!"

I don’t know about leadership, but I like being of service to the people around me, despite their background. I did not grow up with much, so I know what that feels like when I see people struggling to make ends meet. Unfortunately, those kinds of people tend to be disrespected in social circles and easily get denied services. Services that I now receive without even trying. I try to do what I can to make sure that people are seen and heard.

I consider myself lucky because even when I did not have much, amazing people at Gashora Girls Academy surrounded and believed in me. This support helped lay the foundation for our student-run peanut butter business that I and some other students at Gashora dreamed up. Ben and Matt, who worked on the school farm at the time, taught us how to operate the machines, pitch investors, create a valuation model, approach clients and keep them, and even joined us as venture capitalists in the business. We also had the opportunity to run the agriculture club under their guidance! I do not doubt that I would not have attended Duke without their guidance. And it wasn’t just me; they were mentors to many students who went through the program. We all made it to these great universities because they gave us each a shot. How amazing is that? That is who I want to be when I grow up.

Where do you see yourself ten years from now?

In 10 years, I want to be in consulting or a high-level strategy position at a multinational organization. On a more personal level, I hope to have acquired enough capital and connections by then to open an orphanage in Rwanda. The orphanage would double as a school, providing them the opportunity to learn from some of the best teachers in the world. I want to create a home where kids will have a chance to explore every learning style and be exposed to every field. I want them to have a place to discover and develop their talents. I think this is more like a 20-year plan, but I’m excited!


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