Study abroad experience: I spent five weeks in northern Uganda, in the towns of Lira and Gulu. In Lira, I worked in a rehabilitation center for kidnapped child soldiers. The LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army] just takes kids between the ages of about five to twelve or thirteen; old enough to carry a gun but still young enough to be brainwashed. So parents send their kids away to the centers so they won’t be abducted. At the rehab center, they have these huge binders filled with information about the children who ended up there. We were entering all this data into a computer system. Some of the information we had to enter was really disturbing, like what kind of gun were you forced to carry? Did you witness family members being killed or tortured? How did that happen? What types of weapons were used against you? We would also meet with the kids, and that was pretty laid back, just talking or playing soccer or volleyball with them. They’re dealing with hard, traumatic things, but their resiliency was just incredible to me. After reading about their lives, I often wondered how these kids were able to keep going. We saw a lot of war wounds, too, kids on crutches, kids with bullet wounds, but they’re still out there playing soccer.
I also worked in the malnutrition ward at the Gulu State Regional Hospital. Often times we would just ask these mothers who were really sick, can we go wash your children? So we would wash their babies or just give them assistance or play with the kids, just any kind of distraction. We pitched in with any cleaning that needed to be done, organizing, that sort of thing.
Direction for academics and life: When I went to Uganda, I was undeclared, and I wasn’t at all sure what my major was going to be. When I came back, I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to find a major where I could learn to better help these kids. I actually wrote my Honors College thesis on the effects that war has on children—how to design prevention and intervention methods that are culturally and developmentally appropriate.
Career goals: I definitely want to work internationally, but it’s hard to imagine myself moving and living there forever. Ideally, I think I’d like to work for the school system because then I’d have a three-month, built-in vacation when I could go abroad and still have a job to come back to.
Advice to students who want to study abroad: Try to make real connections with real people—not just the “Western-geared” aspects of Africa like the safaris. Go with an open mind, no preconceived notions, because you won’t learn that way; you won’t be as open to the experience. Do some research on culture, history, political relations before you go so you’ll have an idea of what to expect when you get there. Try to go for a fairly long period—five weeks minimum, so you can get a real feel for the place and the people. This is one of those experiences that will change your life!