UT students have been travelling to Gulu, Uganda for a credit-based study and service abroad program (GSSAP) since 2011. It is the university’s first academic service-learning abroad program, complementing more traditional study abroad service and university exchange programs.
Rosalind Hackett, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at UT who is currently serving as Visiting Professor and Research Associate in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School, said the organizations really enjoy having students who are interested in learning more about the sort of work grassroots, community-based organizations do in this post-conflict phase.
While learning and working in a war-affected region can be a challenging experience for American university students, Hackett and her co-leader, associate professor of anthropology Tricia Hepner, emphasize to students that “you cannot help unless you understand, and you cannot intervene and work with local partners to improve their living conditions or fix specific social problems unless you have a solid understanding of the nature of the conflict and its consequences.” Hackett added, “It’s very important to the people there that they are treated as partners and human beings, rather than as victims of a war.”
UT students learn from local community members and experts about the challenges of implementing peace and reconciliation processes, working to prevent HIV and sexual and gender-based violence, and mediating complex legal disputes over land. But they also learn how to cook, farm, garden, tend goats and other livestock, play local instruments, and dance to the local beat.
Olivia Bradley’s student internship placement was with TAKS Art Center, a community-based organization that, in addition to holding art, dance, and boxing classes, also engages local youth in mutual aid projects.
“While I wasn’t taking photos, the ladies in the village kept me busy by teaching me to cook in the traditional Acholi way, I was very impressed in how the women did it because it was not easy!” Bradley posted to the GSSAP Blog, of her work in the Negri Village.
Another student, Austyn Grooms, worked with THRIVE Gulu, whose mission is to empower and assist communities in post-conflict Northern Uganda.
“THRIVE provides disadvantaged youth with computer skills classes with the hope that graduates of the classes will be able to return to school and/or find employment,” said Grooms, adding that THRIVE’s Women Empowerment Group provides a much needed support system for the women who had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.
Hackett added that many people in Gulu have welcomed GSSAP’s involvement, particularly the youth. “They just want to develop friendships with their peers in other parts of the world and those relationships are still active today.”
Several students who completed the GSSAP program have returned to Gulu, some of them repeatedly. One of those is Hilary Epes, who literally fell in love during the program.
“There are many reasons that bring me back. After having an incredible GSSAP experience, I felt like it was just a taste … My relationship with Joshua obviously brings me back to northern Uganda, but I have a love for the habitual and extremely generous hospitality people have, their sense of humor, determination of everyday life, their food and appetites, and hard working behavior. I also really love how every age group enjoys listening and dancing to music. I think that was and continues to be something that brings me such joy watching and dancing with others. There are definitely frustrating aspects of living here, like frequent power outages, using airtime, the dry season dust, and other small things, but having the groups of friends and new family here, while meeting new people or just learning something new each day makes up for it all. I’m proud to say being on the GSSAP trip inspired me a lot and I really don’t know where I would be if I didn’t end up coming back, personally and career wise.”
Gulu Study and Service Abroad Program was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.