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  • Rob Schnieders

Universal Truths, First-hand Experience and What I’ve Learned

There’s nothing quite like being dropped into direct interaction with thousands of welcoming children and motivated teachers. We stepped off the bus on Day 1 of our visit and immediately found ourselves amidst a hundred students eager to show us a game or to demonstrate their knowledge. Days into a trip or an impactful experience like this, I often want to teleport others who can’t be here so they can experience it directly. I’d trade a few of my days so that others could experience it first-hand. It’s so difficult to adequately translate the experience to those not present, and it’s also true that the intensity of our own direct experience fades with time. Here are a few things that have made the greatest impact on me this week.

In an environment of immense need, new and seemingly insubstantial resources can make an enormous difference. We began our trip as a team talking about the size of the challenge and barriers in Uganda. Only ten years removed from a devastating civil war, children and adults have been impacted by the loss of family members, extreme poverty and hunger and deprivation of resources. I looked at some of what we were trying to work on with this trip being focused on teacher professional development and wondered whether one projector and one computer – on a campus without Internet (apart from a mobile hot spot) and limited electricity – could possibly have impact. I’ve been involved in large, scale technology-enabled learning efforts in the US and know all the challenges to successful implementation even in a well-resourced environment. Yet, I had the pleasure to sit with teachers who – only two months after touching their first computer – had already developed new educational resources and assessments for their students. These teachers were incredible advocates for their learners and saw this single projector as a game changer. Though they can’t yet provide hands-on access to computers for their students, they had great ideas for how to use the projector for assessments and demonstration of student work. These teachers and students make the most of every resource introduced to their environment.

I’ve experienced hospitality and generosity on a level I’ve never encountered previously. Uganda hospitality has caused me to rethink every meeting and visitor I’ve ever hosted. In Uganda, students greet you singing at the gates of campus. Minutes are spent at the onset of a meeting acknowledging visitors and staff. Every school has served us lunch and insisted that we eat first. Typically students stage a music and dance performance in the middle of each day. My occasional bagels and coffee to accompany a notable morning meeting just doesn’t pass muster.

There’s a level of resiliency here that’s impossible to appreciate from a distance.

Uganda was mired in civil war from the mid-80s until ten years ago. The vast majority of the students and teachers with whom we are interacting were directly impacted with the loss or severe injury of family members, and the echoes of this war live on with children serving as head of household or living with a single grandparent. This struggle has been compounded by various health crises, including HIV. I’ve been honored to sit and listen to students tell their personal stories. Even though I’ve worked with students in the inner city of Chicago, some of whom are homeless and many of which are facing significant challenges, nothing can prepare one for listening to a student describe their daily life after their mom was disabled by a land mine or to hear another student describe attempting to pay their school fees by laying bricks. I’ve met students here who walk six miles to school each way each day. I’ve read about accounts about situations like this, but it’s incredible to have a student relay this information and then tell you with confidence that they want to be a doctor or the vice president. And if I was able to bet on their dream, I would. They’ve made it through so much and are still confident and hopeful. With their resilience, the hard work of dedicated teachers and social workers, and groups like Fields of Dream Uganda, these students’ dreams are going to be realized.

So although there’s certainly no substitute for directly experiencing this reality, I’m going to do my best to relay it to others, so that they might engage with these teachers and students to advance their dreams.

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