Rwanda raised, WSU/Cougar trained

Like many Washington State University agriculture students, Esther Rugoli grew up on a family farm.

Esther Rugoli sits on a chair in a greenhouse surrounded by plants on tables and on the floor in individual planters.
WSU sophomore Esther Rugoli works in the greenhouse on a research project.

Unlike most of those students, she grew up on a subsistence farm in rural Rwanda with 11 brothers and sisters.

But now, the WSU sophomore is in Pullman, majoring in Agricultural Biotechnology, with plans to attend graduate school before returning home.

“It’s been my dream since I was young, to study agriculture in college and help Africa be more food secure,” Rugoli said. “My family wanted me to become a doctor because they knew I was doing well in my classes. But I wanted to be a farmer, and help farmers become business oriented.”

Rugoli attended a small, prestigious high school in Rwanda on scholarship. The school accepted girls who excelled on national exams from all over the nation, hoping they would become future leaders.

Through the Rwanda Girls Initiative, an organization that founded her high school, she received another scholarship from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, to study agriculture in college. And it could be a college anywhere.

After researching several universities online, WSU became her first choice. It also didn’t hurt that one of her high school teachers, who was from Oregon, recommended WSU’s ag program.

“My family was so happy for me when I received my WSU admission note,” Rugoli said. “Even in our village, it’s very rare to find somebody who has gone to college. Since my parents did not attend any school, my dad fell on his knees crying tears of joy when I told him the news.

Halfway through her second year, she’s diving into the courses specific to her major. But at first, it wasn’t so easy.

“She definitely had some culture shock when I first met her,” said K. Marlowe, a USDA biological science technician, who worked with Rugoli during her first semester. “But she’s got this fantastic work ethic and isn’t afraid to ask questions. That’s so important when you’re working on experiments because they need to be done correctly. The combination of her high-level intelligence and work ethic will take her a long way.”

She’ll need that winning combo to meet her goal: study plant breeding and breed better crops that will flourish in Rwanda.

Where she’s from, farmers rely primarily on two crops: beans and sorghum. These two crops are key to how most of Rugoli’s neighbors feed themselves and their families.

Nearly every farmer in Rwanda is a subsistence farmer, with only one farmer in the area who actually sells his crops. Another goal for Rugoli is to return to her homeland and encourage farmers to think like businessmen and work to grow extra crops they can sell.

Here in Pullman, Rugoli works with Kim Campbell, a WSU adjunct faculty member and USDA-ARS scientist. She’s working on plant breeding projects, which she considers excellent training for her future.

In addition to her studies and job, Rugoli is also becoming more acclimated to the Palouse and taking on new challenges.

“My first semester, I really struggled,” Rugoli said. “It wasn’t an easy transition. But now it feels like home. My roommate and I are like sisters, I’m getting more involved in things like the International Development Club. I love being a Coug!”