Nibigira moved to Clemson in 2012 from the small African country of Burundi to pursue her Ph.D. in travel and tourism. It was 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, Nibigira was conscious that dynamics in the tourism and hospitality industry 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,” Nibigira said. “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, was the best decision, regardless of the circumstances.”
Her studies have been interrupted several times — by career opportunities and by political unrest in Burundi. But she persisted, at times working on the degree part time, and completed her degree in May. Nibigira’s faculty adviser, travel and tourism professor Sheila Backman, said this kind of tenacity and focus is typical for Nibigira: “Other graduate students find themselves needing to overcome challenges while they complete their credential, but not like Carmen. 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.”
Nibigira 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. She decided to pursue her Ph.D. in North America, in part 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, Nibigira also continued her long-standing work to empower women throughout East Africa by creating opportunities for education and mentorship. She has mentored dozens of women during her 20-year career in the travel and hospitality industry and is committed to continuing that.
“Education is a great opportunity for young women,” she said. “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. It took me 15-20 years to work toward my Ph.D., when you factor in my university education and work experience. Once you understand that hard work pays, you become mentally prepared for the challenge.”
Nibigira is 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. Recently, she has 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,” Nibigira said. “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 continued. “I feel like it took several countries to raise me. If I can make a difference in any way, I will.”