Brandon George, from Pittsburgh to Rwanda
Penn State Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management (RPTM) undergraduate student Brandon George took his learning from the classroom to the real world this summer as a research assistant in a gorilla sanctuary in Rwanda.
George, originally from Pittsburgh, selected Penn State because of his mother’s influence. “My mom is an alum and we used to visit when I was a kid—she always talked it up,” said George.
When he arrived at University Park, he learned about RPTM from one of his roommates who is a student in the commercial recreation management option of the RPTM degree program. George liked the idea of a career in recreation and leisure but didn’t feel that commercial recreation was for him.
After doing some research, he found the outdoor recreation management option of the program which aligned both with his personal interests and with the values he learned from his family. “Growing up, my family was into missionary work where we would visit other countries and do projects to help communities,” George stated.
George progressed through the curriculum and completed the Student’s Engaging in Experiential Discovery (SEED) semester in collaboration with Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. SEED is an embedded semester at Penn State Outreach’s field laboratory focused on hands-on learning, environmental education and building community.
Returning to campus after his SEED semester, George enrolled in a course on sustainability, society, and well-being taught by Edwin Sabuhoro, assistant professor of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management and African Studies at Penn State.
Sabuhoro, founder of the Gorilla Guardians Village in Rwanda, is a world-renowned expert in using tourism as a means of promoting conservation and supporting communities in Africa. A former Tourism Warden with Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Sabuhoro saw first-hand the devastation of poaching and at one time put himself at great risk to pose as a potential buyer of a baby gorilla. With a vision to support the community while protecting the gorillas, he put in his own money forward to buy the land and provide resources to offer an alternative to the poachers.
The Gorilla Guardians Village is a tourist destination where former Gorilla poachers provide experiences for visitors to learn about African culture. By offering an alternative to poaching, the village allows former poachers to provide for themselves and their families through tourism, and the endangered gorilla population is protected. Sabuhoro was identified by CNN as a CNN Hero and has been called, “the man saving Rwanda’s endangered mountain gorillas.”
“In my class with Dr. Sabuhoro, hearing about his efforts with the gorillas, I was able to see what was possible in recreation and leisure and how community outreach can make a difference,” said George. “SEED semester provided the foundation for an understanding of how connections and people can work together for conservation.”
Sabuhoro noticed George’s investment in the issues they were discussing in class.
“Brandon started coming to office hours,” Sabuhoro said. “And then, he started walking with me after class. He was very interested in the program. We talked about how he might support the program through his internship.”
With Sabuhoro’s support, George applied for and received a College of Health and Human Development Summer 2023 Undergraduate Research Award to support his experience in Rwanda. With that began the planning for travel to Africa and placement with the Gorilla Guardian Village for his internship.
While on his internship, Brandon worked with the team on site. His role in the research project was to meet with and gather testimonials from former poachers.
“We want to learn ways to support the community,” Sabuhoro said. “We are looking at how perceptions and therefore behaviors related to poaching may be changing. We want to learn more about the individuals in the community. Brandon is talking with them to log their stories. What are their dreams? What are their aspirations? We want to learn more about their lives.”
According to Sabuhoro, the gorilla population has grown since the people who formerly used poaching to support their families gained an alternative way to earn a living. Since the opening of the Gorilla Guardians Village, no gorillas have been killed by poachers. The village has celebrated the birth of up to 20 gorilla babies each year since 2004 as the gorilla community on the mountain grows.
George excitedly shared how spending a summer embedded in a new community and culture is impacting him.
“I feel like I’m on a dopamine detox,” said George. “I spent so much time in the village, even when I didn’t have to be there. At night it is so dark and…peaceful. I wasn’t scrolling on my phone all the time. I feel like the connections made away from technology are more genuine and without strings attached. I have made friends. There is a big difference between our cultures and traditions, but at the core, all people are the same.”
Sabuhoro hopes that George’s success opens the door for other students to step outside their comfort zone and take a risk with learning.
“The experiences you have and the risks you take impact your life. In the African community where we work, there is less material wealth, but the community is willing to share the little they have,” Sabuhoro said. “We learn that people with less are often happier. With a focus on restorative justice, we were able to train former poachers to make crafts and music and dance to offer visitors an experience. In exchange, the gorillas are protected. It is a wonderful experience for students to bring their learning from the class to the field.”
Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management student Brandon George has done just that, from Pittsburgh to the University Park Campus to Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center to the Gorilla Guardian Village in Rwanda. He has worked to connect people to people and people to nature.