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winter 2018

An Interview with Rachel Brittenham

From Wofford to Ireland to Rwanda

Graduating from Wofford in May 2013, Rachel Brittenham majored in environmental studies and biology. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She also was a three-year starter on the women’s basketball team and holds the Terriers’ career record for assists. During the 2014-2015 academic year, she has been pursuing a master of science degree in development practices at Trinity College in Dublin Ireland. After completing her summer fieldwork in Rwanda, she shared some thoughts with the Wofford community.

Q. There’s an old saying, “I love it when a plan comes together.” You really did a wonderful job in planning your first year out of college — study at a great university, international basketball and an amazing research project. How did you manage to pull all that together?

A. During my senior basketball season, I realized that I wasn't ready to be done playing the sport upon graduating. I also was eager to continue my education and to build on all that I had learned while at Wofford. Europe offered the combination of competitive basketball leagues with reputable universities.

I first looked for master's programs that met my interests. After applying to the master's in development practice program at Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland), I then researched the country's basketball league. After reaching out to some coaches with game film and stats, I tried out for DCU Mercy and fortunately was offered a spot! I've now been living abroad, (I never had a chance to do this while at Wofford because the basketball season spanned both semesters and Interim), pursing a graduate degree and continuing to play the sport that I love.

Q. Did you feel that Wofford prepared you well for multi-disciplinary graduate study? Tell us a little about your program. Are you enjoying it? Anything surprising?

A. My graduate program was created in the image of the UN's Millennium Development Goals and exists at universities around the world. The underlying premise is to address sustainability challenges and to improve quality of life.
I've quickly learned that development issues are inter-disciplinary and multifaceted. For example, community growth requires attention to public health, gender issues, environmental quality and human rights, among other factors. These are all issues that I was exposed to while at Wofford. I've thoroughly enjoyed the program thus far and have realized that challenges can be addressed from countless angles.

I do miss Wofford’s tight-knit community. I really appreciated that while at Wofford, class sizes were small, staff knew our names and friends were only a short walk away. I based my whole pursuit of a master's degree off of the feeling of intimacy and support I had while at Wofford.

Q. I know you played semi-pro basketball last year for the DCU Mercy. What kind of special challenge did that offer? You made an enviable record as a member of the varsity basketball team at Wofford, but the athleticism and skill level on an international team would be different from the Southern Conference.

A. The caliber of basketball in Ireland is quite strong and impressive. The league has players from all over the world, including multiple former Division-I players from the U.S. There are many Irish players who could have easily played college basketball in the States. The style of play is much more fast-paced and very physical. Irish players are competitive and many are multi-sport athletes, drawing on their athleticism. I've really enjoyed continuing to play while making great friends and contributing to the team in any way that I can.

Q. I understand your particular research project in Rwanda involved studying how families can start and grow a honeybee business, receiving guidance from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Rwanda Development Board (based in Kitabi), as well as the University of Rwanda (based in Huye). The area needs the bees for pollinating the foliage, and the honey is packaged and sold for income to the families. What were a few lessons you learned?

A. My time spent in Rwanda was unforgettable. This type of socioeconomic study opened my eyes to the unique challenges in developing communities. It was encouraging to see beekeeping as a means of supplementary income, because it also provides such an important ecological service. I was quickly humbled and amazed at my colleagues in Rwanda. They worked selflessly with the sole goal of improving their family's quality of life and obtaining essentials such as food, educational fees and health insurance. Hopefully my research will be used by the beekeepers' union to make these services more accessible for its members.

Q. What surprised you most during your first days in Africa? It occurred to me that you may have known some of our Rwandan exchange students while you were here at Wofford. Did that influence your choice of a research venue?

A. I was first amazed by the scenery. Rwanda is called "The Land of 1,000 Hills," and the views were endless. My master's program offered a variety of summer projects in different locations, but Trinity has had a long-standing relationship with the University of Rwanda.

Having spoken to some of Wofford's exchange students over the years, I already knew that a project in Rwanda would be at the top of my list. Rwanda's traditions are beautiful, and its people even more so. It is absolutely the most unique, friendly and beautiful place I have been.

Q. If you heard about a Wofford junior or senior planning a year like you just experienced, what advice would you share with them?

A. I would likely advise any student to keep an open mind! I applied to eight graduate programs in the U.S. before even considering going abroad. I was incredibly nervous at the thought of moving and had no idea of what to expect. But the experiences in this past year alone have been some of the most incredible of my life. Sometimes taking that leap of faith can result in opportunities you otherwise didn't know even existed.

Q. I understand that you are returning to Dublin this fall to continue work on your master’s program. What comes after you finish this?

A. I don't have any plan at the moment. A great aspect of this program is that fieldwork/internship placements are all part of the degree's requirements. The goal of the first placement (this past summer) was grassroots, "in-the-field" work. The second placement (summer 2015) is intended to be top-down experience.

I'm not sure what direction I will head yet, but I'm gaining interest in fair trade and value-added product chains from developing communities. I'll have to take my own advice to keep an open mind once the M.Sc. is completed.