On arriving in Gulu, you are given an Acoli name; mine was Lanyero, meaning laughter and joy. That name paved my way through the most beautiful and challenging journey of my life, meeting extraordinary individuals and hearing their stories, bouncing over treacherous African roads, and witnessing post-conflict transformation in Northern Uganda firsthand. I learned a new language, made lasting friendships (both with locals and with my fellow students), and fell in love with the host country and its culture. Everything about this program is remarkable, from the administration to the curriculum. When you leave, you won't only have a new name, but new vision.
During most of the trip (starting the second week), we stayed with host families in Gulu. This was one of the most rewarding parts of the trip for me, as I became very close with my host family (mother, father, and four siblings). They treated me as another member of the family, making me feel safe, welcome, and at home for the entire time I stayed there. I will maintain a lifelong relationship with them, and hope to go back and stay with them again sometime soon. The neighborhood I was in was also a good place to be; it generally felt safe enough but was not in the wealthy part of town, so I got a more authentic experience. The house was comfortable and I did have my own room (curtained off), though this is not a guarantee. Also, don't necessarily expect running water or reliable electricity, this is just part of the way of life in most of Northern Uganda! We also had a rural homestay, where we spent a week living in huts with rural families. I also had a fantastic time during this part of the trip, but again, don't expect amenities. Still, it was another standout part of the trip. When we were not in homestays, we were in hotels or hostels, all of which were nice per Ugandan standards, with clean beds, mosquito nets and sometimes running water. We usually stayed in double rooms. During the independents study, it is sometimes difficult to find housing in Gulu outside of hotels (unless you opt to live with your host family, which may be a possibility). I left Gulu during my ISP, so I didn't experience this, but I stayed in relatively sparse hotels or in temporary homestays in more rural parts of Uganda. My hosts were always generous and welcoming, and despite some material hardships I was generally very happy with my living arrangements.
Academically speaking, this study abroad program wholeheartedly embraces the philosophy of "the world is your classroom." Almost all of the learning was experiential. For language learning, we were placed in host families and sent out to interact with local communities starting in the first week of the trip. The rest of our classes were taught by lecturers from all over Uganda whose specific expertise broadened and enriched our field of knowledge. All of the academics were supported by site visits and opportunities to contextualize the information in a hands-on, practical setting. The courses were rigorous in content, but it was not difficult to do well if you put in the effort, and requirements weren't ridiculously stringent. The only class that could have used a bit of improvement was the language study in Acoli, but it is certainly possible to be proficient in the local language by the time the semester is up, if you put your own work into it. Due to the excellent connections of the program staff, resources for independent research were never in short supply and program lecturers were often willing to put in extra time for our benefit. I learned more during this semester than in any other part of my educational career!