Student Leadership Initiative, Africa

Seven members of SMU’s recently formed Student Leadership Initiative (SLI) are in Rwanda, Uganda and Johannesburg during May 2012. The students are researching human rights issues and empowerment solutions for three African countries recovering from decades of genocide, war, famine, disease and apartheid. Pat Davis, associate director of the Embrey Human Rights Program, is accompanying them on the program.

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Postcards from Kampala

An update from Frank Roby, SMU ’74, CEO of Dallas-based Empower African Children, who traveled to Kampala to bring together university and post-secondary Ugandan students in his organization with SMU students:

If you went to summer camp, you probably remember that feeling of not really knowing anyone. But since your parents had already dropped you off, you just hoped for the best. Sure enough, you had a new best friend by the end of the week.

I had that feeling last week, but in an entirely different context. There I was in a room with six of our Ugandan students in our university and post-secondary program, sitting alongside seven SMU President’s Scholars in Uganda for a study abroad experience — the first in the history of Empower African Children. Would they make a new friend or did I really put together two groups that were so different it would end up being as miserable as the time you went to camp and sat in poison ivy?

This is a clear case of a picture being worth a thousand words. You see here two students from completely different circumstances, finding that what they shared was so much more significant than what they knew to be different. A genuine friendship was born.

Studying through the Embry Human Rights Program at SMU, the American students came to Africa to explore how their specific interests affected the rights of others. They studied genocide in Rwanda, but when they came to Uganda, they were looking into women’s health, education, law, technology, entrepreneurship, and the arts as a way to improve the wellbeing of those whose circumstances make them vulnerable to human rights abuse, namely extreme poverty.

Facing the reality of providing for future families, the Ugandan students were mostly focused on trade, marketing, accounting, and psychology. But they knew the devastating impact of abject poverty, and they knew they had answers to questions most people were afraid to ask.

During their time together, the students camped in rural Uganda, worked together on community service projects, and attended private dinners and receptions with leading Ugandan business people in Kampala. We even had an official briefing from the U.S. Embassy and a private home reception provided by Deputy Ambassador Virginia Blazer, an SMU alum.

Toward the end of the week, after a panel discussion by several leaders in business, education, and with NGOs, the SMU students concluded the session by sharing their experience in Rwanda. That’s when the question came up. Could genocide happen in Uganda, too? After all, there are tribes in Uganda, they do not always agree, and by now everyone knows about Kony and the LRA, right?

I was so proud of our students. Not that they said it would never happen, but that they were so committed to making sure it never happened; they would commit to keeping the communication open and to respect the rights of others. In fact, our students come from all sections of the country and many of the leading tribes. Every word became personal, and yet the youthful wisdom in the room seemed to say, “Not on my watch.”

I’m remembering the old days of sending pre-addressed postcards to camp with our children. Everything was fine then, just like it was last week in Uganda. I had a gut feeling this would end up a best friend story — a story that went beyond Facebook and became about how the barriers to relationship break down when people earn the trust and respect of others. No poison ivy ending here.

Empower African Children Scholar Daniel with SMU President's Scholar Michael

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