Carmen Nibigira knows the value of focus and persistence.
She pursued – and earned – a PhD, taking several twists and turns along the way. Carmen started her PhD journey in 2012 when she moved to Clemson from Burundi, a difficult decision that took her away from her children, who stayed with family back home while she studied.
Although she had quickly risen in her field, Carmen was conscious that dynamics in the tourism and hospitality field were changing, and that she had much to learn if she wanted to continue to advance her career. “My professional background was in hospitality, however, I began to see tourism industry discussions shift to a greater focus on conservation, preservation and community engagement,” Carmen says. “I had little knowledge at the time about how my journey in Clemson would unfold, but had faith that pursuing my education in tourism development, with a focus on policy, here was the best decision, regardless of the circumstances.”
In 2014, two years into her doctoral studies, she temporarily put them on hold to take a job as Director General of the Burundi National Tourism Office. This position gave her an opportunity to serve her country, apply her newfound knowledge and skills, and to make a difference. A year after that, Carmen was preparing for her comprehensive exams (also called comps, which are a key part of the process towards earning a PhD), when she accepted another position, this time serving as the regional tourism coordinator for the East Africa Tourism Platform. She was joined by her family in Nairobi, who had abruptly left their home country because of a political situation.
She continued to work towards her PhD part-time, and earned her doctorate this past May. Carmen’s faculty advisor, Travel and Tourism Professor Sheila Backman, says this kind of tenacity and focus is typical for Carmen. “Other graduate students find themselves needing to overcome challenges while they complete their credential, but not like Carmen,” said Sheila. “Instead of slowing her down, she always manages to navigate through anything that’s thrown her way. And she does it the right way. As a result, her academic and practitioner colleagues have tremendous respect for her and the knowledge, skills and commitment she brings to the table.”
Carmen started her academic career in the United Kingdom, earning her undergraduate degree in Brighton and her master’s in Birmingham, with experiences in Switzerland and East Africa. Earning a PhD in North America was appealing to Carmen, as she wanted to learn about tourism from a different cultural perspective. She chose Clemson because of its climate, tourism and parks management program and faculty’s international reputation.
While she studied, Carmen also continued her long-standing work to empower women throughout East Africa by creating opportunities for education and mentorship. Carmen’s personally mentored dozens of women during her 20-year career in the travel and hospitality industry, and serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the Akilah Institute in Rwanda, a women’s college that prepares a new generation of African female leaders. The institute has been so successful that it’s looking to expand, with a goal of creating a network of campuses across sub-Saharan Africa within the next 15 years.
Carmen sees herself as being in a unique position to help, as an industry leader and one of a small percentage of people throughout the world who have a PhD. “Education is a great opportunity for young women. But it’s not just about education. It’s about the quality of education, equal pay, being able to get a good job and striving to have it all, just not all at once,” says Carmen. “It took me 15-20 years to work towards my PhD, when you factor in my university education and work experience. Once you understand that hard work pays, you become mentally prepared for the challenge.”
She’s now working as a Project Director for Horwath HTL, an international consulting firm that provides governments and other clients with tourism research, policy and strategy development and implementation support in East Africa. And she’s recently found a new challenge to pursue, after a conversation with one of her sons. “He asked me, why are you always focused on helping girls? Why not boys?” she said. His statement caught her off guard, and made her think.
“I’m a mother of boys, and began to wonder, are we creating the same opportunities for them? We perceive boys as having an advantage, but I’ve started to wonder if that’s really the case,” says Carmen. “I’m compelled to see how I can start engaging boys in the very near future. We have helped girls and women access education and equal opportunities, and boys are feeling left out.”
“After all, in Africa, we say that it takes a village to raise a child,” she continues. “I feel like it took several countries to raise me. If I can make a difference in any way, I will.”