Shortly after the midterm US elections finished, and with many outcomes still in doubt, I boarded a plane with the final destination of Rwanda. My job was to spend the week as visiting faculty at the University of Global Health Equity (UGHE) in northern Rwanda, supplementing instruction for sr medical students. Due to the differences in the education system, most of these students were age 21-23, putting them in the Gen Z category. More importantly, they are one of first generations born after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Their memory of this horrific event is only learned thru reading and the trauma that older generations suffered when a civil war resulted in the deaths of 800,000 Rwandans. Since then, the country has been actively working on peace initiatives in order to reconcile its past. Each year an entire week is devoted to peace building initiatives for all ages as they are committed to “Ubumuntu”, shared humanity that is actively expressed through empathy and care for other people.
The students that I worked with reflect this philosophy; they have committed 6 years of their lives to medical education that will be used to care for those Rwandans that are underserved and in mostly rural parts of the country. Just as the majority of the Rwandan parliament is women (61%, highest in the world), 2/3 of the UGHE medical school class is women. The female parliamentarians have prioritized the education of girls and incentivized them to study male dominated professions. The majority female class speaks to the success of these efforts. It is hoped that with more women in higher education and professional jobs, there will be less chance of a future genocide as women are seen as the center of family life.
As I followed the political headlines back in the US, it became apparent that the votes of Gen Z greatly influenced the outcome of the election. Just as the current Gen Z population in Rwanda is the product of societal change, our current US Gen Z population has grown up during an epidemic of school shootings, loss of reproductive rights and increasing polarization of the political parties. They have seen extremists foment violence and deny long-standing medical information and climate change. They want to see government work together and set policies that improve their lives, no matter the political party that is in power.
Due to social media, Gen Z around the world is increasingly connected to each other. They learn from each other how to effect social change and create a society that reflects their values. They increasingly wish for a world and society that is more cohesive and less polarized. I am hopeful that our future looks much brighter as these young people show us a way forward.