WMU alumna receives Uganda’s Medal of Honor

Dr. Betty Udongo

Udongo receiving her award from Unganda's President Yoweri Museveni

The Honorable Dr. Betty Udongo, a 2009 graduate of Western Michigan University’s science education program, was recognized for her work to increase educational opportunities for children in the Republic of Uganda in March 2012 when she received the Presidential Nalubale (Lake Victoria) Medal of Honor.

Udongo attended the ceremony in Uganda on March 8, which coincidentally was also the day her hometown of Nebbi district hosted the national celebration to mark International Women’s Day with a focus on enhancing girls’ education.

Reared in a rural, war-torn district, Udongo has since 1994 been an advocate and activist for the education of children, particularly girls, in a society which largely considers it “useless” to send girls to school. She is a terrific role model for the students she meets because of all the unique accomplishments she’s achieved as a resident of Nebbi district: She built the district’s first private secondary school; while a member of parliament (hence, the addition of “Honorable” to her official title), she was the first woman to participate on Uganda’s Defense and Internal Affairs Committee, which was made up mainly of male Army generals who elected Udongo as vice chair of the committee for three terms, 2001-04; and, she is the first woman from the district to earn a doctoral degree.

Udongo (far right) with President Museveni and some of the other award recipients

“Receiving the award was a big surprise for me,” said Udongo, the mother of four teenaged children. “My life and what I’m doing is impacting the lives of many people. Just like water is life, Lake Victoria is a source of life and the source of river Nile, which is the longest river in Africa that flows out to the rest of the world. It says to me, whatever I'm doing here, it could possibly affect people everywhere. I have always said it's more important to educate a girl because of the saying, 'when you educate a boy you educate an individual, but when you educate a woman you educate the whole nation.’ Women are responsible for their family’s healthcare, food, nutrition and many other things. An educated mother is going to contribute much more to the health of the children, family and society at large.”

After she completed her Ph.D. at WMU, Udongo went back to Uganda and taught at Gulu University in Northern Uganda, where she served as the chair of the Biology Department. She returned to Kalamazoo in 2011 and became the founder and president of NETSTAR, a non-profit organization that complements her work as founder and chairperson for the Northern Uganda Girls Education Network.

NEBSTAR facilitates agricultural, science, technology, vocational and construction training programs in Kalamazoo and Nebbi. By offering parallel programs in both places, Udongo says NEBSTAR serves as a bridge between at-risk youth living in a rural impoverished community—Nebbi district—with low-income communities in Kalamazoo. Udongo believes that her work will foster meaningful relationships and a stronger sense of understanding between people in both communities.

Another primary mission of NEBSTAR is its sponsorship program, which provides financial support for students to enroll at the private school for abandoned and orphaned children that Udongo founded in 2002, Nebbi Standard Academy. Using her earnings from parliament, she built the school and paid teachers’ salaries.

Udongo with Nebbi Standard Academy teachers

“Early exposure to education is paramount for a child’s development,” Udongo said. “The school is helping not only the children of Nebbi, but northern Uganda as a whole because it has accepted students who had dropped out of school as a direct result of the country’s 25-year-old war with Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army.”

The challenges are many running a school in such an impoverished area, says Udongo. There are no textbooks, laboratory equipment, electricity or running water. The school serves as “home” for many of the students, who sleep on the bare floor in windowless rooms behind unsecured doors. Last year, the school closed because it was not able to provide food for its 200 students. Enrollment is now down to 90 students, of which only five received sponsorships. Due to the limited funds available, Udongo said it has been difficult to retain quality teachers; however, all of these challenges do not lessen her determination.

“Even a deprived school can continue to teach,” she said. “We must be creative, innovate and improvise because that’s how I learned science. I came from a school that was similarly deprived and here I am with a Ph.D. in science education. We won't give up. It's hard to raise funds, but I can’t stop, because if I do someone will drop out of school. We will stay open even for two students so they can get an education.”

It’s not surprising that Udongo is sometimes approached by people who ask, “Oh, is that the school Oprah built?’ or, ‘Did you know that Oprah built a school in Africa?’ These are not comparisons that Udongo appreciates.

Udongo with Nebbi Standard Academy students

“That really gets on my nerves—to be compared to a millionaire—when I have worked so hard throughout the prime of my life, not being able to save a penny for myself or my children so that one more child gets an education,” she said. “I’ve given up my salary so that some kid out there gets food. I go from one craft show to another to raise money for the school. Ten years down the road, the school is still not complete, but thank God one of the orphans, Ochung James, is graduating from college next year, Moses Okeny is in his second year of college, and we have a student named William taking a computer course who told me he would have become a terrorist except for the chance we gave him to get an education.”

Udongo is also a member of the Forum for African Women Educationalists, which is a pan-African NGO working in 32 African countries to empower girls and women through gender-responsive education.

“One of the things I’ve done through my work with the forum is to help sensitize girls’ parents about the importance and value of getting an education,” she said. “My sister, Grace, is the one who got me interested in science; she used to listen to the radio and tell me about all the new scientific discoveries. Her stories were so intriguing. We must convince children at an early age of the importance of science and science education.”

She was surprised one day when her son remarked that, if she had opened the school years earlier, Osama Bin Laden would not have become a terrorist.

“That was quite a remarkable thing for a 7-year-old to say,” she said. “But it’s true. I’ve talked to students who want to become terrorists to avenge the deaths of their parents and the only thing they say would keep them from terrorist activities is an education.”

Coming to Kalamazoo: How Udongo learned about WMU

Udongo earned a bachelor of education degree in science from University of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania in 1992 and a master’s degree in botany from Makerere University in Uganda in 1999. She began a doctoral program at Makerere in 2000, and then received a scholarship to study at the University of Kiel in Germany the same year. She planned to earn her doctorate through a “sandwich program” approved by the two universities. WMU popped up on Udongo’s radar when she participated in a SECME summer institute held at Nashville State University, Tennessee in 2002. The organization’s base is at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Ga.

“I was asked to speak about science and culture,” she said. “I'm a big fan of ethno science and as I was looking for articles on the topic, I came across an article by WMU professor Dr. Bill Cobern, who had written about science and culture in Nigeria. So I wrote to him, giving praise for the article and asked if WMU had a program about culture and science.”

WMU does not offer such a program, but Cobern, WMU professor of biological sciences and science education and director of The George G. Mallinson Institute for Science Education, replied and advised Udongo about the University’s science education program; he also offered to help her secure a scholarship. Because she was still serving in Uganda’s parliament, she had to request permission to apply to WMU, which was approved. She enrolled and spent her last three years as a member of parliament simultaneously pursuing her degree at WMU, which required frequent trips between the U.S. and Uganda.

“When the scholarship was confirmed I enrolled,” she said. “Dr. Cobern really encouraged me to come. He was not only my mentor and boss, but also a great friend and I enjoyed working with him.”

Cobern said he admires Udongo for her commitment to her homeland and what she has achieved despite the many extreme challenges she’s experienced in her personal life. He describes her as “larger than life.”

“Betty has a great sense of humor, even in the face of severe trials, such as an attempted assassination,” Cobern said. “Even when she has endured threats on her life she continued her work on behalf of children and the disadvantaged in her home region of Uganda. From the time that Betty arrived at WMU and the Mallinson Institute she pursued work that would serve needs in Uganda.”

Her local area volunteerism includes running the science and wheels program, which introduces science to underprivileged children in their neighborhoods, working with daycare centers to sow the seeds of scientific inquiry in preschool children and participating in “Chemistry Day,” a science showcase for children hosted each year at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. She is also the co-founder of Prayer Clinic International, a non-denominational, non-profit organization whose goal is to bring healing, wholeness, joy and victory to those experiencing emotional brokenness and oppression.

Determination is Udongo’s key to success and she said she plans to move full speed ahead with her current and future projects.

“I believe that I've contributed a lot in the sense that I have encouraged people to do things they wouldn't have normally done because they have seen me do it,” Udongo said. “I hope I have been an inspiration. Throughout my life it has always been determination the steers me to my destiny or my destination. I'm determined and I'm going all for it, no matter what it takes.”

Story by Nate Coe