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Diane Ruonavaara, program manager, Tanzania Partnership Program

Diane Ruonavaara

Diane Ruonavaara was a young girl when she made a commitment to do work that would help people improve their lives. Now, as the program manager for MSU’s Tanzania Partnership Program, she’s living that promise.

“I think when I first made this commitment I was 13, and I was very naïve at that time,” Ruonavaara says. “I didn’t understand what it meant to be poor, what it meant to live without water, what it meant to live without food. But I made a commitment, and I have pursued degree programs that helped me develop an expertise and understanding that I needed in order to do this work.”

The program, which began in 2008, engages marginalized communities in Tanzania that don’t have a lot of outside interaction with nongovernmental organizations or other groups that could help improve their lives. One part of the program involves working with the village of Milola to improve access to education for children. In another village, Naitolia, program staff and partners are working with residents to improve access to clean water and to provide education and training so villagers can manage resources in the future.

“The overarching concept that we’re using is resiliency—fostering resilient communities,” Ruonavaara says. “What that means is helping communities to bounce back from external stressors and shock. We are working toward helping to foster the ability of communities to envision a better future and helping them to move toward that. We are not doing that as outsiders, but the communities themselves develop the capacity and ability to move their development forward in their own vision.”

Ruonavaara previously worked with marginalized communities in Latin America doing similar work to what she’s doing in Tanzania.

“The people there told me that I was a bridge, an echo, and a mirror,” she says. “As a bridge, I was a connection to an outside world that they could not access. As an echo, I carried their voice to that world. And as a mirror, I reflected back to them a vision of themselves, but from a different perspective so they could think about who they were and what they were doing. Since then, I have taken that idea and tried to play that role in other settings.”

Ruonavaara earned her master’s degree and doctorate from MSU—in what was Resource Development and is now the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation, and Resource Studies—and specialized in international development. After she graduated, she began working for MSU Extension with a 4-H migrant youth education program.

“I made that choice not to go into academia very intentionally because for me, the practice and the application of knowledge is what is important,” Ruonavaara says. “Generation of knowledge is good, but I want to be a part of where knowledge is applied to improve people’s lives.”

The Tanzania program is doing just that with the opening of the preprimary school in Milola and the new rural water systems in Naitolia.

“There are about 100 kids who have never gone to school before who are now in school,” Ruonavaara says. “Those kids will now have an education. And in Naitolia, it used to be a four-kilometer walk to get water for their school—something the children would do. The water was contaminated. With the reservoir, they now have easier access to clean water. These things help open up the world to them.”