Alumni connections play a huge role for Wittenberg and its students’ future success. Those connections can also provide a deeper look into historical events and teach students important lessons.
H.O. Hirt Professor of History Scott Rosenberg teaches a class on “Genocide in Post-Colonial Africa” and was grateful when former student Rob Lehner, class of 2011, reached out to him about a possible speaker for his class.
“Rob is a former student and history major, and we have stayed in touch over the years. He asked me if I would be interested in having somebody who lived through the Rwanda genocide come and speak to my class,” said Rosenberg, who is also Honorary Consul for the Kingdom of Lesotho, the director of Peace Corps Prep Program at Wittenberg, and oversees the non-profit Lesotho Nutrition Initiative on campus.
Lehner, a former member of Wittenberg’s tennis team and current tennis director at Five Seasons Sports Club in Dayton, specialized in more social/European history at Wittenberg, but was always intrigued by Rosenberg’s classes.
“As is the norm at Witt, most students have to have a class with Dr. Rosenberg, so once I took his thought-provoking class, ‘Genocides and Civil wars in Africa’ I wanted to gain as much knowledge on Africa as I could. Dr. Rosenberg captivates you in a very grim historical turn with slavery and colonialism. In wanting to learn more about this history, I took as many classes as he offered on the subject,” said Lehner, who is also a volunteer assistant coach for Wittenberg’s men’s and women’s tennis teams. Both teams practice at Five Seasons during the cold weather months, and the club has hosted LNI packing events.
Lehner introduced Rosenberg to Pacifique Mbaraga, who plays tennis at the club. A survivor of the Rwandan genocide, Mbaraga was just 16 years old when the genocide occurred in Rwanda in 1994. The Rwanda genocide is a major event in history where approximately 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority, were murdered by the Hutu ethnic majority. The genocide was started by Hutu nationalists in the capital of Kigali and quickly spread throughout the country with ordinary citizens being incited by local officials and the Hutu Power government to take up arms against their neighbors. By the time the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front gained control of the country, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were dead, and two million refugees (mainly Hutus) fled Rwanda.
“Pacifique plays tennis at Five Seasons when he is not traveling for his job as a nurse,” Lehner said. “I teach his daughters tennis and as is normal for my routine, I like to get to know my players and parents. After talking to Pacifique, he was surprised I knew African history, and I told him about my time at Wittenberg. I reached out to Scott to see if he'd be able to use my connection with Pacifique with any classes or content.”
And so the connection was made, and Mbaraga agreed to speak to Rosenberg’s class.
“It was incredibly powerful and moving for all of my students to hear what he went through, and it humanized everything we had been talking about in class,” Rosenberg said.
“He did an incredible job sharing his experience living in Rwanda,” said Alexis Opdycke, class of 2023 from Rocky River, Ohio, who is taking Rosenberg’s class. A history major and education minor, Opdyke is an editor on the History Journal and works at the research help desk in Thomas Library, among other activities at Witt.
“Sometimes in history, we are so far removed from an event, that it is difficult to understand the emotions associated with it,” she said. “Pacifique helped our class understand how deeply those living in Rwanda were affected by the genocide. His experience helped me understand the reality of the Rwandan genocide. Having speakers like Pacifique absolutely helps us to grasp material. Pacifique's speech is something that I will remember long after my time at Wittenberg has come to an end.”
History major Cooper Conrad, from Dayton, Ohio, is a graduate student working on his teaching licensure at Wittenberg. He said that Mbaraga’s talk was “the most powerful 50 minutes of his life.”
“This kind of experiential learning is what makes a college learning experience. I will never forget this class,” said Conrad, who also has a minor in education and is involved with LNI at Wittenberg. “Through the three schools I have attended including graduate school, this was by far the most impactful important experience and class I have taken. Having our guest speaker Pacifque, was an incredibly powerful experience. It humanizes the entire class and provides a different way of thinking about the course material while also reflecting on life post genocide. When you read about the number of deaths and about the horrendous acts (that occurred in Rwanda), it has an effect on you, but to hear the authenticity and stories from Pacifque adds an element that can't be described. The acts you read about and the statistics you read become more powerful, more real.”
Following Wittenberg’s motto of “Having Light We Pass It On To Others,” Lehner tries to help out at Wittenberg whenever he can.
“I feel it is a duty to help other students experience what I did at Wittenberg,” he said. “The ability to network is a skill I rely on to this day, which was initiated on campus in a number of ways. This time around it was Pacifique giving his first-hand account of the genocide in Rwanda, which was the meeting of my tennis world and history world – also initiated at Wittenberg. This, I believe and hope, are what many alumni bring to the table to make sure their educational experience is ‘passed on’ to the next generation. Originally wanting to come to play tennis in college, I had no idea the extra life skills I would develop with a well-rounded liberal arts education.”