Describe your program socially and academically.
Kristen: Academically the program is solid. The lecturers that you will listen to come from across the spectrum, and include ex-leaders of the LRA, members of the Ugandan parliament, local NGO leaders, and even perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. The SIT also has an amazing staff that does a wonderful job at helping students to understand how to conduct their own research (since the program is research based).
Do not let the research focus scare you however, since I had never written formal research before the start program. Socially the program is not a semester in Spain in terms of night life, but you will be able to still find places to hang out and explore on your own with the other SIT students from your program, other SIT programs in the area, and with local friends that you make. There are in fact some fun bars and night clubs that are starting to arrive in Gulu now because of the large foreigner population so don’t worry, there are ways to relax and enjoy yourself.
What did SIT do for you and what did you need to do on your own?
Kristen: The SIT style promotes independent and experiential learning, so even though the program was highly structured in term of classes and travel, I still had to do a great deal on my own. During the first two months most of my days were filled with classes and outings, but the last 6 week period was fully on my own as each student conducts his or her own independent study project(ISP) (either an internship or a research project).
SIT provides a great deal of support and connections to make sure that each student is safe and that they are getting the most out of their educational and cultural experience, but each student is still responsible for pursing their own interests. After this program I felt far more confident in my ability to be independent and to navigate my own way through a foreign country.
What is one piece of advice you'd give future SIT:Uganda students?
Kristen: There are two pieces of advice that I would give to people who are interested in this program. First, do not be scared off by the fact that this program takes place in Northern Uganda. Kony and the LRA have not been present in the area for over 6 years and I actually felt safer in Gulu than I do when I am in my home city of Philadelphia.
Second, I would suggest that anyone who goes on this program should take time to immerse themselves in the local culture as much as possible. Take the time to connect with your host family, learn more of the language outside of the classroom, and bond with your coworkers that you will meet during your (ISP) period. The best education that I received during my time in Uganda and Rwanda was outside of classroom, so take advantage of your surroundings!
Did you run into a language barrier while studying abroad?
Kristen: Language was not a problem when I was in Uganda because the national language is English. Most of the people who I came into contact with spoke English at a very high level of proficiency (except when we traveled to rural areas), so I never felt like the language was a problem. Locals actually preferred to speak English with me rather than the local language, Acholi! However it was helpful to learn some basics of the local language because it helped me to get better prices in the markets and to be accepted by local community members. I felt like the times that I learned the most Acholi were when I spent time talking with my host family. That is by far the easiest and fastest way to learn everyday useful Acholi phrases and terms!
Do you think your program changed you as a person?
Kristen: Absolutely. After my program I felt far more confident in myself and in my abilities as a student and traveler. I have never heard of any other study abroad experiences that deal with such sensitive and important issues like the ones that post-conflict northern Uganda and Rwanda are facing today, and do so in a way that somehow after understanding just how terrible humanity can be, still leaves its students hopeful for the future. I came into this program as a scared Westernized girl who was afraid of bugs and I left knowing how to carry water on my head and how to treat bugs like a natural part of life. It changed my outlook on life completely and I cannot wait until I return to east Africa!