The Tower Center sat down with Tower Scholar Thomas Schmedding, class of 2017, to talk about his time studying abroad and interning in Kampala, Uganda.
Life in a developing country is both fascinating and physically/mentally demanding every day. My time in Uganda was full of unexpected opportunities and some of the most memorable experiences of my life. Throughout my four months in Uganda, I saw circumstances I couldn’t have possibly imagined: extreme poverty, inequitable government healthcare and education institutions, and broken social contracts, among others. Despite these challenges though, a sense of hope and optimism always filled the air. The Ugandans I ran into every day couldn’t have been more grateful for their humble circumstances and they were always full of happiness. Waking up every morning, I was honored to be welcomed into such a warm-spirited community.
What was a typical day like for you?
I split my time between a homestay and an apartment. My homestay family was hardworking, supportive, and incredibly caring. In fact, I’ve never met a group of people that would devote so much time to making sure others felt welcomed. They helped me navigate Kampala’s unorganized “taxi” system (A “taxi” in East Africa is 15 people crammed in a conversion van with no organized route), and they taught me how to negotiate in one of Uganda’s 50 local languages at the market.
For the first two months, I took courses on development, Ugandan culture, and research methods through the School for International Training (SIT) with three other American students. I followed this with an internship at a digital health organization dedicated to alleviating Uganda’s doctor-to-patient ratio of about 1:25,000. These two opportunities were complementary in terms of providing experience navigating Uganda’s diverse culture.
What is one lesson you took away from your time there?
I learned a lot about myself when I was in Africa in terms of my life priorities and how my future might change, but as cliché as it sounds, the Anne Frank quote “No one ever becomes poor by giving,” particularly resonated with me. The Ugandan people will give their time and hearts to helping someone, even when there is little for them to gain. For this reason, I found Ugandan people more spiritually and emotionally rich than some Americans.
What is it like transitioning back into life in Dallas and at SMU?
To be honest, transitioning back into Dallas and SMU has been complex. I found a lot of value in my experience, but it has been difficult describing the unimaginable to SMU students, faculty and staff who have never experienced the magnitude of everyday life in a developing country. To articulate this further, I sometimes have small “reverse culture shocks” in Dallas. I went in a supermarket the other day, and I found myself in a daze at the sheer number of cereal varieties. We live in a country where this material gain drives a vast number of products and services, but Uganda taught me to be grateful for even the smallest of choices.
How has this experience impacted your goals for the future?
I’ve always wanted a career dedicated to giving back, but living and working in Uganda emphasized my interest in an international development career. After returning from Uganda, I interned for a large humanitarian organization and am currently interning for a USAID Public-Private Partnership dedicated to food security, with respect to supporting resilience, innovation, and adaptive capacity in developing countries.
An experience in Africa will change you. I can’t imagine following a career path where I don’t have the opportunity help people achieve their full potential. For this reason, I say ‘weebale emirimu’ (loosely translated: ‘thank you for your work’) to each of my friends, coworkers, and host family members in Uganda.