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Students recount service experience in Uganda

| Monday, October 13, 2014

Six Saint Mary’s students presented their experiences in Uganda this past summer yesterday evening. Three education majors and three nursing majors traveled to Uganda for seven weeks to teach in the school and work in the Ugandan clinic.

Senior nursing major Kelly Wilson said the experience taught her to be more effective with communication and more respective of other cultures.

“The program is one of the greatest because it fully immerses you into the Ugandan culture,” Wilson said. “You aren’t living in a hotel, you aren’t checking your phone because you don’t have access to that so you’re really getting to know the world around you and most importantly the people around you.”

Wilson said the workers in the clinic were friendly, but she faced a language barrier.

“Our first day, a nurse took us aside and kind of took it upon himself to make us comfortable and teach us a bit about their language,” Wilson said. “One of the challenges was that in the clinic the workers spoke a fair amount of English, but the patients of the clinic did not speak English. It was up to us to really dive into the culture and make sure we could communicate with the patients.”

Senior education major Francine Rizzo said she came to the same presentation last year and thought the girls’ account of their experience in Uganda was exaggerated.

“Last year when I came to this presentation, one of the girls spoke about how Uganda was God’s best kept secret and I thought to myself, ‘Oh she’s doing a presentation so maybe that’s a little corny and she’s just trying to get us to go,’” Rizzo said. “But as I was thinking about what I wanted to say to you guys to represent my time there I kept thinking back to her words and how Uganda really is God’s best kept secret.”

Rizzo said the people’s humble and joyful attitudes were contagious.

“It brought into my mind to see how other cultures live when we have so much over here and half the people don’t appreciate it,” Rizzo said. “And just to see what you can really do with your resources when you push the limits.”

Janice Heffernan, a senior nursing major, said one word summarized her experience in Uganda — grateful. The spirit of the Ugandan people under difficult circumstances and willingness to accept the Saint Mary’s students into the community was amazing, she said.

“From the neighborhood children who welcomed us into their village to the workers at the lab who let us learn new skills, I was always astonished by the generosity of the community,” Heffernan said. “On our last day in the clinic I was overwhelmed by the gifts of fruits and cards from the students and clinic staff. When you are offered so much from people with so little it’s impossible not to reflect on your lifestyle at home.”

Bridgette Minnema, a senior education major, said she, like other study abroad students, entered the program without the slightest idea of how the experience would ultimately affect her. From the moment she landed on Ugandan soil, she knew she was in for one incredible journey, Minnema said.

“I didn’t expect to fall in love with a country as much as I did or enjoy the simplicity of their lifestyle,” Minnema said. “The truth is that Uganda took me by surprise in more ways than one. It restored my faith in humanity and taught me what is truly important in life. Surprisingly enough I found the hardest part of my adventure wasn’t adjusting to life in a developing country but being back home and trying to describe to others how astounding my adventure was.”

Brehl said she remembers feeling so welcomed by the Sisters that live in Uganda when first arriving and automatically feeling at home.

“We were living somewhere new, somewhere I had no idea what to expect,” Brehl said. “When I first arrived I remember on our doors was our name and a welcome sign … It really made me feel so welcome in a place I felt like an intruder. A place that I felt really far from home … but I just felt like this was home.”

Gianna Ventrella, a senior education major, said she was in a second-grade classroom. On one of the first days of school there were 55 second graders looking up at her and they were learning math.

“There was this little boy and he was having trouble counting so the special education teacher in me just wanted to sit down and work with him,” Ventrella said. “I remember the teacher came up to me and said that he was stupid and that he would never be able to understand math. Well, I took it upon myself for the rest of the time to make sure that he caught up in math. By the end of the time, we were dividing.”

Ventrella she wants to return to Uganda.

“All I know is that I need to go back. I need to see my people, I need to go back home.”

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About Alex Winegar

A junior at Saint Mary's, Alex is a Communicative Sciences and Disorders major. She serves as the Saint Mary's co-associate news editor. Alex enjoys traveling, food and spending time in "The Mitten."

Contact Alex