Bryan Farris

Visiting Akilah: A Girls? Education Success Story and More

There is a sign at the entrance of the Akilah classroom that reads “From wherever you are, enter and be welcome,” which is exactly how I felt as I settled in to a desk to observe the ’hospitality’ course review for finals.

The Rwandan based Akilah Institute for Women claims to “prepare students to find meaningful employment and launch ventures in the fastest growing sector of the Rwandan economy.” But Akilah is so much more than that.

On the same wall there is a poster that reads:

“A Woman as a Metaphor for Leadership…Women are:

  • Smart workers
  • Organized
  • Passionate
  • Talented
  • Influential
  • Caring
  • Responsible
  • Good managers
  • Inspiring
  • Multi-purpose”

I’ve known for a while that Elizabeth Dearborn Davis, the founder and CEO of Akilah, clearly exemplifies these values, but as I glanced around the room, I could see these traits in the eyes of each of the 35 or so young women in attendance.

I’d just add one item to the list: grateful. The students of Akilah clearly understand the value of the experience they are receiving. It would be hard not to: the school, though small at present, is quite professionally run, with an extraordinary staff full of passionate purpose. This is no fly-by-night operation.

If social sector nerds like me were deflated to learn that some of Greg Mortenson’s schools don’t actually exist, they should be elated to find that not only is Akilah succeeding as a college, it is setting new standards of excellence in education. As the Operations Director, Kim West happily shared with me, “Students enjoy an all encompassing approach focused holistically on their personal growth.”

Technically, the curriculum includes courses in hospitality, global perspectives, English, computers, leadership and ethics (and Jacqueline Novogratz’s The Blue Sweater), but the two hours I spent in hospitality class painted a different picture.

The teacher, Asli Kutlucan, had such high levels of energy, compassion and expertise (she has worked many years in hotel management) that she rivaled my UC Berkeley professors. I was only planning to stay for part of the class, but found myself glued to my seat. By the end, I was ready to start my own hotel, which is exactly Akilah’s ultimate dream for its students.

Asli’s review walked through a highly interactive exploration of all the aspects of hotel management from every employee’s point of view -receptionist to food and beverage manager to owner.

The girls, impressively, knew their stuff.

At some point Asli asked about the restaurant menu: “How do you determine pricing?”

One girl listed: “Look at overhead – electricity, rent…”

Another: “Ingredient costs!”

A pause, we were ready to move on, but one girl spoke up: “Something is missing. Where is the profit?”

The classroom erupted in a communal gesture of recognition and admiration: waving hands shot up in the air and an ’sssss’ sound filled the room. I felt alive.

A moment later, there was large crack: to my left a girl was on the floor with pieces of her former chair splintered around her. Potentially a tragic experience for an adolescent girl, Asli handled it perfectly. She picked the girl up, checked that she was really okay, and fired off a few quick jokes to make light of the situation.

We moved on to discuss the best way to conduct an interview and decide if an employee is worth hiring.

Particularly fascinating was the critical thinking debate the girls had. In non-western education, critical problem solving is very a-typical. And yet we had a lively back and forth about how to handle an over-booking conflict between the hotel’s most loyal customer and a corporation with 40 rooms trying to extend their stay. There is of course no right answer, but Asli emphasized that actions should be informed by “Ethics, discipline, principles and most of all, honesty.”

A few axioms were repeated throughout the class:

– Loud and clear!

– Is this good service or bad service?

– Every person in every department is part of customer service

– Never give up on a customer

– Pronounce your L’s and R’s

– Own the problem, take responsibility: If it’s the hotel’s fault, then it is your fault.

– Respect and honesty

Somehow Akilah has recruited star employees like Asli. Inexplicably, she was able to simultaneously teach hospitality, correct English, explain math tricks, demonstrate values of honesty and respect, and build personal confidence. The last bit is especially vital for this post-genocide generation.

In fact, self knowing and sharing are built into the girl’s weekly curriculum. I was lucky enough to be present when Monique Schmidt lead Kanatapi, a magical time for the girls to share and open up with one another.

Next year Akilah will be shifting to a larger campus to increase enrollment capacity. The new campus will bring with it many new opportunities-a dormitory for girls to live in, an eco-lodge for hands on experience running a hotel, and the chance to sustainably grow student’s food on campus. I’m fairly excited to post my 5-star eco-lodge review on Yelp next time I visit.

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