Innovative Class Affords Students a Life-changing Experience

What do you get when you combine a service-learning project, an internship abroad, and six hours of class credit in one summer? “A life-changing experience” is what most participants of UT’s new Gulu Study and Service Abroad Program (GSSAP) would immediately answer.

This summer, twelve UT students enrolled in the academically intense course that included traveling to war-affected northern Uganda to study at a local university and to provide service to its people. The program afforded students the opportunity to enrich their education, enlarge their worldview, and examine their life’s work through the lens of concrete examples of concepts learned in the classroom.

The GSSAP group with Ugandan friends and colleagues in front of the Gulu University Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies

The College of Arts and Sciences’ religious studies and anthropology departments joined together to create the program, which incorporates many of UT’s curricular goals for student learning. Developed by religious studies professor Rosalind Hackett and anthropology associate professor Tricia Hepner—both of whom have expertise in peace and conflict issues in Africa—GSSAP is designed to engage UT undergraduate and graduate students with different interests in research and international service learning, giving them knowledge that is experience-based and relevant.

“GSSAP makes a great contribution to students’ education at UT through various disciplines as well as the university’s Ready for the World initiative,” says Hepner.

UT partnered with Gulu University in Uganda, where students attended classes that were taught by faculty, local leaders, and nongovernmental organization experts. Each student then spent three weeks interning with local peace-building and humanitarian organizations according to their individual academic and professional interests.

“Studying the religious beliefs and practices of individuals and communities around the world involves a number of methodologies, one of which is ethnographic fieldwork,” says Hackett. “This program can help students discover for themselves—whether they are religious studies majors or anthropology majors or in global studies or art or pre-med—the central importance of religion in local culture and politics.”

On the anthropological side, Hepner says one of the primary goals of cultural anthropology is a commitment to learning about complex issues as they unfold on the ground and in the context of people’s lives and communities.

“It’s an approach that really requires us to ‘be there,’ to use our critical faculties as well as all of our senses and our humanism as we learn to see a situation from the vantage point of those living it,” Hepner says. “Classroom learning about conflict and human rights efforts to achieve peace and reconciliation is a good start but not really enough from an anthropological viewpoint. The students need hands-on experience in these matters in order to be able to step back and critically analyze the larger picture and patterns. Then they can use this understanding to better assist and serve the communities they work with.”  

Not only did student participants earn six hours of anthropology or religious studies class credit through the program, but also they learned job and career skills that are applicable in a global context. Hackett and Hepner hope the students’ internship experiences will help them discern or affirm their career choices.

“My most amazing experience was working in the pediatric ward at the local hospital,” says Morgan Fillyaw, a senior majoring in clinical laboratory science. “I now realize that I want to further my education so I can come back to Uganda and work as a doctor.”

Religious studies senior David Burman spent his internship at the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), an interfaith organization that encourages peaceful dialogue between people of the Muslim, Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Seventh-day Adventist traditions, as well as the National Fellowship of Born Again Churches.

“What impressed me most about ARLPI’s morning devotions was their participatory nature,” says Burman. “Everyone gets the chance to lead devotion and to comment on what the leader of the day says. But the most impressive part is that both Christians and Muslims get the opportunity to preach. It was a striking experience for me to hear one of the Christian members of ARLPI wish the Muslim community well at the beginning of Ramadan.”

“The students’ lives and careers will be indelibly shaped by this one summer experience,” says Hepner. “It will forever shape the way they think about the world and their place in it…and they will return home more critical in their thinking, more empathetic, more inspired, and perhaps a bit disillusioned, as well.

“Hopefully they will realize that human solidarity can always transcend the arbitrariness of our birth and nationality,” Hepner says. “From that realization, great things can follow.”

–Kim Midkiff