Fairhaven’s Hilary Schwandt returns from research trip to Rwanda

Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies Associate Professor Hilary Schwandt returned from Rwanda at the end of July after a month of researching the country’s impressive family planning program.

The purpose of her trip was to analyze, recognize and share Rwanda’s successful program in the hopes that other nations could follow on its success as well.

The research was conducted in three parts to give a full understanding of Rwanda's programs; the first trip was last summer, followed by the second trip in February, and finishing with the most recent trip this summer.

“Rwanda has the most unprecedented family planning program I’ve ever seen. Particularly in a region where family planning is low compared to the world,” Schwandt said. “People are not talking about Rwanda in the family planning world, which blows my mind.”

Family planning is generally viewed as services and resources that help control the number of children a family has by using contraceptive methods. According to the World Health Organization, family planning benefits include preventing pregnancy-related health risks in women, reducing infant mortality, preventing HIV/AIDS, reducing adolescent pregnancies, slowing population growth, empowering women and families and enhancing reproductive education.

Schwandt said it was a dream come true to go to a country that has had so much success with family planning and have the opportunity to ask questions and understand how they did it.

On the first trip they conducted interviews with national-level stakeholders. The second trip included focus group discussions with family planning providers including nurses and community-health workers. For the recent, and final trip, the team conducted interviews with women about their experiences accessing and using Rwanda’s family planning resources.

Schwandt said she believes family planning programs are vital to the success of a nation.

“When people are having children when they don't want to, the ramifications of that are so long lasting and can be so negative,” Schwandt said. “Family planning is the ultimate path to health for people, families, communities and nations.”

Each of her three research trips included a number of Western students.

When people are having children when they don't want to, the ramifications of that are so long lasting and can be so negative.

On this most recent trip, Western student Madelyn Merritt, a Spanish and Sociology major from Parker, Colorado, visited Africa for the first time as part of the research team because of her interest in public health. 

Merritt did not know what to expect but came out of the trip extremely grateful for her experience.

“I had my interests sparked in a lot of different areas,” Merritt said. “It's been sort of widening of my lens, rather than narrowing it. I really gained a lot of interests, and grew academically as well as personally.”

Schwandt’s research team also worked with a group of Rwandan students and formed close friendships with them over the course of the trip, which Merritt said was one of her favorite parts.

“People were so kind and welcoming to us. We were welcomed into the families of the Rwandans we were working with,” Merritt said.

She also found that the Rwandans they were conducting the research on were very open to sharing their stories and experiences with family planning, which helped data collection go smoothly, Merritt said.

Schwandt has been studying and researching family planning since her master’s degree and subsequent doctorate at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health where she first became captivated in the topic. Since then she has conducted an extensive amount of research on family planning in sub-Sahara Africa.

“Everything about family planning is interesting and spot on for my interest areas, and I am still am so excited to learn more,” Schwandt said. “I have the opportunity to continue studying and learning about it, which feels really good.”

This research was funded by a Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) grant by the National Science Foundation. The purpose of a REU grant is to expose undergraduates to research opportunities with a particular interest in students who might not have those opportunities at their home university.

For more information about her research, contact Hilary Schwandt at hilary.schwandt@wwu.edu. A blog of her research experiences in Rwanda can be found at https://rwandareu2017.wordpress.com/.

This is the second installment on a series of summer articles focusing on faculty research in Western’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies. To read the first story, visit https://westerntoday.wwu.edu/features/once-there-were-thousands-wwus-john-bower-researches-the-declining-numbers-of-salish-sea