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Uganda Winter Intersession Program Fosters Hands-on Learning, Community Building

Photo by Mary Flores.

Though our summer programs may be more well-known, each winter intersession OU offers a range of unique study abroad opportunities for students looking to spend winter break immersing themselves in another culture. One such opportunity is the Northern Uganda Collaborative Learning Program, which completed its first winter installment in January, with another planned for 2019–20. The program was organized by the OU Center for Peace & Development (CPD) in collaboration with renowned activist Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, one of Time magazine's Top 100 Most Influential People.

The winter program was led by CPD co-director Dr. John Harris of the College of Architecture and Dr. Firat Demir, professor of economics, and enrolled a total of 11 undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of majors. The group spent two weeks studying and researching in and around the city of Gulu, with accommodations at St. Monica’s Vocational School, a CPD-backed initiative that provides education to adult women in the community. They also got a chance to experience the natural beauty of the region during a day trip to the nearby Murchison Falls National Park.

The inaugural Northern Uganda Collaborative Learning Program took place in June 2018, when OU faculty and students collaborated with women’s organizations in Uganda to host a conference on grassroots peacebuilding (read more about this program in our 2018 International Profile). Last month’s program built upon the success of the June conference, again connecting students with local women’s organizations for a project. Each student on the program enrolled in one three-credit course, cross-listed under Women’s & Gender Studies, Regional & City Planning and Economics, with the central assignment of conducting a baseline survey of women members of two grassroots organizations: Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN) and People’s Voices for Peace (PVP).

The impetus for this survey, Harris explains, was to help the organizations better understand their members’ needs: “There is a lot of diversity in experiences and priorities for women in northern Uganda, and the grassroots organizations want to know more about their members in order to create better programming and for fundraising,” he says. In addition, the project offered OU students a chance to conduct community-based research and gain practical experience in international development and activism. “Students who want to do this kind of work rarely have a chance to get real world experience of this nature,” Harris explains.

For Charnell Walls, a senior Aviation major who completed the program, this hands-on experience in the field was a key selling point of the program. “I lead a women’s organization and I felt the experience would be amazing and educational and applicable to what I was doing,” she says.

OU students with the leadership team of grassroots organizers and translators.

For their research, the group traveled to three different villages outside of Gulu, spending two days in each. On the first day, they conducted one-on-one interviews with local women; on the second, they engaged with these women in group discussion. The group interviewed 126 women overall, gathering valuable information to help WAN and PVP continue and strengthen their advocacy.

Harris stresses that alongside this central project, the course incorporated study of the region’s history, the women’s movement and the impacts of colonialism. “We spend a lot of ‘critical reflection’ on the meaning of our actions as outsiders, our own positionality and acknowledging the significantly asymmetrical power dynamics of our presence,” he says. “We do this to think through the potentially oppressive impacts of our own actions and to ensure we are living into the stated values of the CPD.”

Senior Mary Flores, a double major in Biochemistry and Women’s and Gender Studies, chose the winter Uganda program because it offered “more than just an excuse to travel.” She explains, “Working with the Center for Peace and Development, the sisters at St. Monica’s and the community leaders and women of the groups we surveyed as part of the Women Creating Social Change course is a direction I want to go in developing as a researcher and as a global citizen.”

For both Flores and Walls, however, the very best part of the experience was not the work itself, but the people they met doing it. “The nuns, the coordinators, the co-researchers and my fellow OU students all come from different backgrounds but were all so invested in the project’s success,” Flores says. “I loved the community we built just in two weeks.”

“I loved the people, the fresh foods, and the way they celebrated in some of the villages we visited,” recalls Walls. “It let me know that some of the things that I do here in the US are a part of my heritage; they have been passed along without [me] consciously knowing it. I felt at home while there and hope to return to see the friends I made along the way.”

This June, the Center for Peace and Development will host another study abroad program in Gulu, during which students and faculty will continue the survey work with grassroots women’s groups and hold a second peace conference. Applications for the June Collaborative Learning in Uganda program are due February 24th, and undergraduate and graduate students of all majors are welcome to apply. For more information, visit the program website or contact Monica Goodwin at


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