Photos contributed by Katherine Bigcraft Carnevale
Katherine Bigcraft Carnevale, a St. Mary's Academy graduate, stands with people she met while visiting Africa.
Photos contributed by Katherine Bigcraft Carnevale
Katherine Bigcraft Carnevale, a St. Mary's Academy graduate, stands with people she met while visiting Africa.

She could have gone to almost any cosmopolitan city, but when Katherine Bigcraft Carnevale was to study abroad, she picked Rwanda.

The Portland Catholic is currently roaming through central Africa and has been blogging about her experience at wanderess12.wordpress.com.

Her visit comes 20 years after the Rwandan genocide, when 800,000 Tutsi men, women and children were slaughtered, along with thousands of Hutu who were murdered for raising opposition against the killing campaign.

Carnevale has had the opportunity to meet and speak with survivors, militia soldiers and rescuers, who sheltered or hid people during the genocide.

“At one point [a rescuer] was tipped off that the government militia was coming to his place,” Carnevale wrote in her blog, recounting the story of a rescuer who had been able to shelter 114 people in his house and surrounding property. “He was able to vacate all but seven very old people to safety. It was clear how many times he mentioned these seven people that, even though he was able to save 107 lives, these seven still weighed very heavily on his heart.”

At Goucher College in Baltimore, Md., where Carnevale is a sophomore, students are required to study abroad for a minimum of 21 days.

As a sociology major with a concentration in health, Carnevale could have traveled to the same location as many of her classmates: the Danish Institute for Study Abroad in Denmark. Instead, her top choices were Bosnia and Rwanda.

According to her mother, Carnevale was the kind of child who required her parents to “rethink the standard parent protocols.”

“She's definitely a free spirit, more independent and self-sufficient than most kids her age,” her mother, Susan Bigcraft, said. “She’s also always had a keen sense of justice and has never hesitated to stand up for what’s right.”

Carnevale said her parents instilled in her a love of travel. Even when Carnevale and her brother, Dante, were young, the family traveled all over the world: Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, China and Japan.

“After we were in a city for a few days, my parents would give Dante and I one walkie-talkie and they would have the other, and as long as we stayed in range, stayed together and came back at a certain time, we had free reign,” Carnevale said.

In Rwanda, Carnevale is studying the Kinyarwanda language, attends lectures on multiple topics about Rwanda (both pre- and post-genocide), and visits memorials and NGOS, while living with a host family.

Students conduct independent research projects while studying abroad. Carnevale will focus on adolescent sexual and reproductive health education.

She spent two weeks in Uganda, eating chapatti and learning about the 20-year conflict and Joseph Kony’s militant Lord’s Resistance Army.

“A common disquieting theme throughout many of the lectures was the prevalence of mental illness here, particularly PTSD and lack of resources to treat it,” Carnevale wrote in a blog entry about the trip. “While being in Rwanda certainly has been difficult at times, there is obvious reconstruction and rebuilding going on that can buoy one up. That is much harder to see in Uganda, specifically Gulu, which made every fact seem to hold so much developmental weight.”

Carnevale attended All Saints School and St. Mary’s Academy. She grew up in Northeast Portland, where her mother is a lawyer and her father an emergency room doctor. Her brother is a student at Central Catholic High School.  

Regardless of where her world travels take her, Carnevale said she always feels at home in a Catholic church.

“It is very comforting to be in a Catholic church, regardless of the language, and to know what is going on and have a little piece of community,” she said.