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Dispatches from Uganda: The Unknown Becomes Known

Map of UgandaUSD nursing faculty member Martha Fuller, Doctoral Nurse Practitioners Allison Bryden, Shaylyn White and Cara Fratianni.

Editor's Note: A water quality and public health research project in Uganda has the full attention of an interdisciplinary group — including USD faculty members, students, President James T. Harris and his wife, Mary — all of whom are excited to show what it means to make a difference in the world. Ryan T. Blystone, editor of the USD News Center, is in Uganda to document the trip.

Three weeks ago, much was unknown. Back then, some carried doubt and the few who had a good sense of what lay ahead still needed to adjust accordingly. The trio who specifically knew their role heading in understood that it would test them professionally and produce a well of emotions, all while providing the best care possible.

Eight women between the ages of 21-29 — four undergraduate students, three doctoral nurse practitioners and one 2019 behavioral neuroscience alumna — arrived in Uganda to ring in 2020 with varied visions of what this trip would ask of them and how they would respond.

"I talked to Molly (Klein), my lab partner, and (Chemistry Professor) James Bolender a lot before coming on the trip. They prepped me about what I was going to see, how people would act, how we'd stand out," said Kendyl Maher, a junior biochemistry major. "What I wasn't prepared for was that there are actual cities where we're visiting. Whenever you see Africa on the news about anything going on, it's only about poverty and how the people need help. I expected to see poverty everywhere, but there are cities, there's an economy and there's so much culture here. Where we've been staying, Montfort House, is so beautiful, with all the flowers and plants."

Maher, mechanical engineering student Christina Kozlovsky, and nurse practitioners Allison Bryden, Shaylyn White and Cara Fratianni were all newcomers to Uganda. Molly Klein, Marci Strong and Natalie North-Cole were on their second trip, having been in Uganda in January 2019 for Chemistry Professor Jim Bolender's water purification techniques in the developing world Intersession class.

"Last year I didn't really know what to expect," said Klein, a junior biochemistry major and standout cross-country and track athlete. "It was all new. The purpose was to just soak it all in, experience the culture and learn how to perform the chemical tests on the water. This time it felt a little more like I knew what I was doing, but I'm still a student. Every time I come here it's a learning experience."

The 2020 trip — which was again led by Bolender, though not an official USD class — was a research/business trip. There was the task of gathering and studying water samples for research purposes; Kozlovsky was looking into research for her senior engineering design project; faculty members and President James T. Harris met with local officials to strengthen connections; nursing students, led by Nursing Professor Dr. Martha Fuller, gained exposure to providing health care in a different country by way of day shifts at nearby Holy Innocents Children's Hospital in Mbarara, giving educational presentations to nursing staff and aiding the hospital with two pop-up medical clinics that served nearly 500 children in rural areas.

Each of these moments brought out something profound in each of the students.

On Instagram, Fratianni visually expressed her thoughts and feelings for everything she was able to do on this trip. Just prior to joining the group in Uganda to work in the hospital, she had taken on the challenge of climbing the famed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Combining both experiences in Africa, she credited the continent for "showing me my inner strength and power as a woman."

But moments like those were only part of it. There were the times spent gathered for three meals a day, long rides on a school bus, van or a jeep-like vehicle on the rugged roads, playing volleyball at Montfort House, dancing, singing Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" or playing Uno. Put all those moments together, mix in the hospitality and friendliness of Ugandan people and you have a recipe for a successful and memorable international experience.

"When I found out I was going to be coming to Uganda, I was very excited but also extremely nervous," Kozlovsky said. "I'd never traveled to a country in Africa before. All of the travel I've done out of the country, if not with my family, had been with a class. A research trip with people coming from all different majors was different. I didn't know anyone else but my faculty advisor, (Mechanical Engineering Professor and Chair) Dr. (Frank) Jacobitz. I was nervous to see how the interactions would go. But once I got here, the people were so welcoming. I've really held onto that; everywhere you go, you're most welcome. I feel as though I found a home here."

Three weeks later, closing in on 11 p.m. in the Entebbe, Uganda airport's Crest Cafe, goodbye hugs were exchanged. A few watery eyes were noticeable among the USD students and staff. They’d become fast friends and experienced something together that will always bond them. Despite varying flight paths home, the chemistry that brought them together will remain on a What's App group chat, as a hashtag #uganda and via countless photos and videos.

These lasting memories are something special, which will forever be well known.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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