By Leah Norman

Leah, an alumna of World Savvy's first AYLP Bangladesh (2011-2012 and Co-Chair of the Alumni Advisory Board, is going into her senior year at Colorado State University. There she is studying Economics, International Development, and Environmental Sustainability.  In her free time, Leah loves to play Bananagrams, plan her future travels and adventures (or go on travels and adventures), cook, and play piano.

This past fall (August- December 2014), I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study abroad in Kampala, Uganda with the School for International Training (SIT). The program, which was based on an interdisciplinary curriculum and brought together a group of twelve unique students from schools across the country, was focused on International Development. My student peers and I brought to the group a diversity of academic specializations, which ranged from economics to biology to philosophy.

The first portion of the program was focused on studying a wide range of development-related issues both in the classroom and experientially through collaborative intensives with college students at Makerere University in Kampala. Throughout this phase we also travelled to Eastern Uganda, Western Uganda and Rwanda. The program ended with a 6-week research period during which each student chose a specific development-focused topic that he or she wanted to research and completed his or her own project. For my project, I explored the functionality of savings and credit cooperative organizations (SACCOs), which are formal but non-bank financial institutions that function similarly to microfinance structures. I chose to research in Gulu, a town in northern Uganda that was largely impacted by Joseph Kony’s resistance movement in the 90’s and early 2000’s.

While I was in Uganda, I kept coming back to an article that I read with World Savvy’s AYLP on one of our first days in Bangladesh. This piece argued that short-term service trips are generally not beneficial to local communities and questioned the implications of long-term service. I recall that the article concluded by claiming that the true benefit of service travel isn’t what volunteers accomplish, as the locals can usually do complete such tasks faster and more efficiently, but rather emphasized the importance of cultural exchange.

When I told people where I was going for my study abroad experience, the initial response tended to be, “Why Africa?” followed by “What type of service work are you doing?” Each time I received these inquiries, I would explain that this trip would actually only benefit me; I wasn’t going to help or save anyone, but rather to participate in a symbiotic cultural exchange through which I’d attempt to understand development in the context of one African culture.

My time in Uganda was transformative for a number of reasons. In particular, the experience enabled me to discover my passion for public health, specifically women’s access to reproductive health services in Sub-Saharan Africa, a personal interest I had never realized. I hope to return to Sub-Saharan Africa on some sort of fellowship program after I graduate in order to learn more about the area’s culture and further evolve my philosophy regarding development.

My studies in Uganda were extremely important, but sharing about my time abroad wouldn’t be complete without mentioning all of the amazing social experiences I had as well. I was blessed with a gracious, loving and entertaining host family. My fifteen host siblings, all of whom were over the age of 20, showed me the life of a Ugandan family. They took me out dancing regularly at the coolest venues in Kampala and taught me how to kill a chicken that our family received at a wedding (the same wedding where I had to play the role of the groom’s sister, giving a speech to 200 Ugandans about the love shared by a couple I’d never really met). My host siblings and I swam and danced at the pool and went out for late night snacks of fried chicken and chapatis. I carried gifts for another newlywed couple on my head, and I learned how to shop at the local thrift stores. At the end of my time in Uganda, my SIT group went on a game drive where we visited Murchison Falls (the most powerful waterfall in the world) and saw 62 giraffes (the math major on our program was of course the one who counted). We went to the headwaters of the Nile and took a boat safari, seeing so many hippos that our tour guide promised we’d get sick of them. I made lifelong friends with both my fellow American travelers and the incredible Ugandans that I met.

Spending 3 months in Uganda forced me out of my comfort zone, pushing me to learn about my strengths, weaknesses, and passions. And, in many ways, it is World Savvy I have to thank for this; having the ability to travel to Bangladesh, a country most can’t pinpoint on a map, sparked my interest in international travel and lessened my hesitation and fear of going to developing countries. I’m looking forward to the many future international experiences I’ll have, starting this with five weeks I will be spending in Europe this summer and my upcoming trip to India this winter.