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Helping Rwandan women learn, then earn

Tampa native Elizabeth Dearborn-Hughes co-founded the Akilah Institute for Women, which offers diplomas that lead to jobs — a 92 percent employment rate for the first two classes.

AMY HOLLYFIELD | Times

Tampa native Elizabeth Dearborn-Hughes co-founded the Akilah Institute for Women, which offers diplomas that lead to jobs — a 92 percent employment rate for the first two classes.

KIGALI, Rwanda

There is a saying that when you educate women, you educate a nation.

Elizabeth Dearborn-Hughes, 29, is a petite woman who radiates confidence and approachability. The Tampa native is also an unassuming power player who co-founded the Akilah Institute for Women, educating hundreds of women each year.

Visit a classroom at this college with diplomas in hospitality management, entrepreneurship and information systems and you'll find confident, supportive women in their 20s, many in white Akilah polo shirts, most with a story about their family and the genocide.

Dearborn-Hughes didn't plan on a career in education, but she became obsessed with Rwanda while at Vanderbilt. She learned about the genocide in an issue of the Economist, and started reading everything she could. The history fascinated her.

Desperate to be there and do something to help, she saved up money working through school and moved across the world four days after graduating in 2006.

She had not been to Rwanda. And she didn't know anyone. Well, she had the number of the friend of a friend who was a missionary. She started volunteering at an orphanage and lived in a church guesthouse.

Along the way, she met many young Rwandan women.

"These girls were brilliant and had so much potential and yet none of them were going to go to college," she said. "They all knew that. They knew that when they graduated, they would get married, they would have kids, they would work at home, maybe they'd work in the market. And these were really bright young women and they had nothing, like no future at all. But then you see where the Rwandan economy is going, and the fact that there are jobs, there is a lot of investment."

She met Dave Hughes, now her husband, and together they envisioned Akilah. The idea was to create market-relevant education for women.

"Why isn't there more of a direct bridge between the lack of human capital in the country and the education system and the potential of these amazing, young women?" she said. "That was really it. Dave and I just sat down and said, how can we create a model that kind of links all these different pieces together ... puts them on a real career path, rather than just teaching them how to weave baskets or make necklaces."

In 2010, they opened Akilah, which is accredited through the Rwanda Ministry of Education, and have graduated two classes with a 92 percent job placement rate. Earlier this year, they opened a campus in Burundi, a country just south of Rwanda.

Classes run 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. each weekday, but many students have jobs in their study areas and work 3 to midnight.

A majority of the students are from rural areas and have to find family or friends to live with near the Kigali campus. Transportation is a big problem.

To ensure success, each student has someone sign a support pledge to vouch for their success at Akilah. Many of these women are the oldest children in their families, in charge of raising siblings or taking care of the household. It's a hardship for them to leave home for a couple of years to get an education.

Tuition is $3,500 a year, but Akilah uses donations from individuals and foundations to cover $3,000 for each student. Rwanda's per-capita income is roughly $600.

Dearborn-Hughes is the niece of former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis and says he has been really involved expanding her network. Her mom, Beth Davis, is a full-time volunteer chief operating officer for Akilah from her home in Tampa.

"The Tampa community has been absolutely paramount to our success," Dearborn-Hughes said. "Truly, Akilah wouldn't exist if it weren't for all the people who have helped organize events and raise funds."

Fundraising is a big problem, so each year Dearborn-Hughes travels the United States with a few Akilah students and tries to get people to help her change the world with a goal of graduating more than 1,500 women by 2020.

"What we're doing, we believe, is the most sustainable way to end poverty because you're helping build an economy, helping create jobs in a sustainable market-relevant way," she said.

Amy Hollyfield, the Times' assistant managing editor/politics, reported from Rwanda on a grant from the International Reporting Project. Contact her at ahollyfield@tampabay.com.

Want to help the Akilah Institute?

Visit their website for more information on the school and how to donate at akilahinstitute.org.

Helping Rwandan women learn, then earn 04/03/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2014 2:17pm]
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