In Rwanda to Teach Others, Ferkauf’s Carl Auerbach Learns Something New Himself
Dr. Carl Auerbach, professor of psychology at YU’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, recently returned from Rwanda where he taught courses in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the National University of Rwanda as part of a Fulbright Fellowship.
In the fall semester of 2011 I traveled to Rwanda on sabbatical, having been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to teach and conduct research at the National University of Rwanda. I went from classrooms where the largest class size was 20 to 30 students, most of whom were white and all of whom spoke English, to classrooms of 80 to 100 students, none of whom were white and only about half of whom spoke English. I went from a cozy apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to an African hotel, where the fact that the power failed at least once a day was compensated for by the invariable cheerfulness of the desk clerk who assured me that the power would be back in no time at all, which it usually was. I went from a culture of rushing to a culture of greeting. From a work environment where I would nod to my colleagues in passing as we hurried to our offices, to a work environment where it was rude not to shake hands with someone you know when you encounter them and to inquire about their health and state of mind.
In short, my sabbatical in Rwanda was a life-changing experience.
In Rwanda, I taught a lot of the same material that I teach at Ferkauf. I taught a course on the psychology of trauma and trauma treatment, and a course on qualitative research methodology. I also taught a course on psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic therapy to the clinical psychology undergraduates.
My emotional reactions to Rwanda were complex and contradictory. Rwanda was horrifying and appalling, yet it was also inspiring and amazing. I was horrified when students told me stories of unimaginable trauma, of hiding in the bush and watching their families killed, of somehow surviving after being left to die, of brutal rape and sexual violence. I was inspired when I heard one student say to another, “It is possible that your father killed my father, but that is in the past. Now we are both students at the university and we need to work together if we are to have a future.”
The Fulbright experience changed me, both professionally and personally. Professionally, it forced me to rethink our Western theories of trauma and recovery. In the West, an individualistic society, we conceive of trauma as something that happens to individuals and trauma therapy as work with these individuals. In Rwanda, a communal society that experienced the collective trauma of the genocide, our Western theories do not directly apply.
I am currently planning research on collective trauma and recovery. I am also rethinking my views on resilience, having witnessed the incredible recovery of the Rwandan people. I intended to study trauma in Rwanda, and there was a lot to be found. But there was an amazing amount of resilience there as well, as is shown in the students’ capacity to move on with their lives. My future research will also be concerned with the psychological and social processes that make such resilience possible.
Rwanda also changed me personally. When I first returned from Rwanda I was struck by the incredible wealth of America and how much we take it for granted. The money my wife and I spent on the dinner to celebrate my return would have fed a Rwandan student for a month. Even something as prosaic as Internet access was dictated by one’s wealth. When I first thought about teaching in Rwanda, I planned to put my course material online so that the students could print it out. Upon arrival, I learned that only the relatively rich students own computers and others make do with the computers they can borrow. Moreover, students don’t print out articles; they read them on the computer screen because paper is expensive.
My hope is that Yeshiva University will develop more connections with Rwanda, both at the individual and the institutional levels. It would be wonderful to create more student exchanges, in which students from YU travel to Rwanda to meet students at the National University, and vice versa. It would also be desirable to set up official ties between Yeshiva University and the National University of Rwanda. Rwanda enriched my life and it could enrich the life of others as well.
Dr. Carl Auerbach is professor of psychology at Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. He can be reached at Carl.Auerbach@einstein.yu.edu. The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to Yeshiva University.