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Former parliament member is among WMU grads

June 25, 2009

KALAMAZOO--When Betty Udongo came to Western Michigan University five years ago, she left behind a country torn by war and injustice as well as the constant personal threat of assassination. She brought with her from Uganda a lofty set of life goals.

  • She wanted to earn a doctoral degree in science education.
  • She wanted to use education to salvage a generation of Ugandan children whose chances for the future were destroyed by 20 years of war.
  • She wanted to become the first female president of an African nation.

On Saturday, June 27, the former member of the Ugandan parliament will walk across the stage at WMU's Miller Auditorium to receive her doctoral degree from the University's celebrated science education program. After that, the 43-year-old mother of four will begin the transition back to Uganda. Her work as an educator there has already begun and will now intensify as she takes her new set of skills to the school she founded.

And as for becoming the first female African president? She'll have to try to become Africa's second female president now. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf captured the status of "first" when she became Liberia's president three years ago.

Udongo served as a member of Uganda's parliament for three terms--finishing her last term in 2006 while studying at WMU. She expects to run again in 2011's parliamentary elections. An educator at heart who founded her own rural school, she's long since learned that the path to good public policy runs through the political process.

"I went into politics with an agenda," Udongo says. "As an educator at a university, I realized lots of research was being done, but it was not being used. I decided I would become the voice for education in the place where policy is decided and where the money to make things happen is."

For Udongo, the policy that needs to be implemented involves taking education into her nation's countryside where too many students lost their opportunity to learn because of 21 years of continuous warfare. Seeing that lost generation of students led Udongo to complete doctoral research that supports her argument that education should be part of international aid to war-town countries. Maintaining or organizing schools, she believes is every bit as critical as food and medical relief.

"During conflicts, schools should be islands of hope," she says. "Otherwise, people are destroying the very future they're fighting for."

Udongo knows the politics of war and its affect on schools all to well. During her tenure as a member of parliament, she served as vice chair of parliament's Committee for Defense and Internal Affairs--the committee responsible for funding the army.

"In my role, we just kept funding the army, so I've been involved in it all," she says. "I've been a victim of war. I'm an educator. And I was working with the army."

Udongo learned of WMU's science education program in 2003 after reading a paper on science and culture written by Dr. William Cobern, director of the University's Mallinson Institute for Science Education. She "fell in love" with the paper and sent an e-mail to Cobern, striking up a professional connection that eventually brought her to WMU.

With her doctoral degree in hand, Udongo says, she will re-engage with several major educational initiatives--two already established and one she hopes to begin.

First, she'll reconnect with the school she founded when she was in parliament. She founded the school in her hometown of Nebbi, buying books and hiring teachers with her own salary. What began as a five-student school with one teacher in 2000 quickly grew to enroll more than 200 students and employ 12 teachers. A new school building was finished in 2005. Her ultimate dream is to see that school continue to grow and become a university of science and technology.

Her second focus will be the Northern Uganda Girls Education Network she founded. She'll be looking for sponsors to help expand programs that use music and counseling to heal the trauma of war. A connection she made between the network and the University of Tennessee has grown into a "Jazz for Justice" initiative that takes UT students to Uganda to help. This summer, a group from Kalamazoo College that is focused on using the arts for healing will travel to Uganda as well.

Finally, Udongo envisions a new science initiative in her native country that will set aside the remnants of the country's traditional British educational methods to focus on teaching science in a way that uses hands-on techniques and builds on the life experiences of Uganda's students. She knows that science is learned best by those who have the opportunity to "do" science, but she also knows her country's children, already years behind, can't wait for science equipment to be distributed on a five- or 10-year plan. She wants to build mobile units--"Science on Wheels" vehicles--full of laboratory equipment that can travel from school to school.

"Some of our best students never actually touch science equipment until they sit for a national exam," she says. "That happened to me. I want to be there to make it better for those who come after me."

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, (269) 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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