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Drake student’s trip to Africa a life-changing experience

  • Primary school students who Emma Williams met at Sure Prospects. Photo submitted

  • Most of the group at the Namugongo Martyrs Shrine. Photo submitted

  • Giraffe seen on a safari at Murchison Falls National Park. Photo submitted

  • A warthog joined the group for lunch at the campground at the national park. Photo submitted

By Kelly Terpstra,

Emma Williams went on a trip.

Not just any journey, mind you.

This trek across the ocean turned into a life-changing experience for the Charles City college student and would take her halfway across the world to Uganda in east central Africa.

“It was amazing,” said Williams, a 2018 Charles City High School graduate and Drake University sophomore.

The 20-day trip was part of Drake University’s summer study abroad program — a six-credit course titled Sustainable Development in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Nine Drake University students, including Williams, took the 20-hour flight in June with three Drake professors to learn about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa and get a glimpse at the inner-workings of Uganda’s school system.

“The kids just loved being with us. I have so many pictures because they just wanted to see themselves in the camera,” Williams laughed.

She came back home with a lot more on her plate than being able to gaze at giraffes and elephants in the wild. She did a research project on defining homelessness and partnered with Ugandan business students to help the nation as a whole through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Topics researched, discussed and presented focused on education, health care, microfinance and agriculture.

“Being involved in the community, it just took the trip to a different level. Because it wasn’t just like we were tourists going on a safari in Africa. Although we did that,” said Williams.

But there were also cherished shared moments between her host students that she became close friends with in the capital city of Kampala, Uganda, a pulsating nerve center with more than 1.5 million residents in the southern region of the country.

“It was pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” said Williams. “I was with students that had grown up across the world – completely different lives. But we were still able to find all these similarities.”

Williams witnessed extreme poverty, learned about third-world conflict and saw inspiring examples of courage to overcome long odds and make a difference. She visited small, sustainable farmers who grew coffee. She met refugees from northern Uganda who had risen out of some of the worst conditions in the world to become successful entrepreneurs.

She said she witnessed hope.

“It was a really cool experience to see that,” said Williams. “If you get the chance to go – do it. Go to Africa.”

Despite being in one of the most violent and dangerous regions in the world, Williams said she felt safe for the three weeks she stayed overseas.

“Overall, it’s not violence, but it’s just tension. There is a lot of dissent for the government but there is also a lot of support for the government. It just depends,” she said.

Williams said getting around the big metropolis could be a challenge, and spending hours in traffic is not uncommon. The group she was with would walk around the city a lot or lounge at the hotel resort where they were staying.

“It’s such a huge city,” said Williams.

Kampala is located just over 20 miles north of the equator. Williams and her crew made the jaunt down to the imaginary line that separates the northern and southern hemisphere on one of the first days into their trip.

“This is definitely unique. There’s not a lot of people that I meet that have been in that part of the world,” she said.

Williams visited Kikandwa Health Clinic, which Drake University helped build and is affiliated with. Williams and her colleagues all volunteered at the hospital during Health Day, and minor services were free for the villagers. Williams was one of many who helped register patients, recorded health statistics and played with the children while their parents received treatment.

She also visited primary and secondary education schools. She saw firsthand how the learning institutions incorporate children with disabilities into the programs and provide nutrient-filled meals.

Williams is majoring in politics and sociology with a minor in Spanish. She said her dream job is to one day to work for the United Nations.

“It definitely has made me lean toward doing something international, eventually. I had always known that I want to travel. But doing this has just kind of opened the door and now I don’t want to stop traveling,” she said.

She said the biggest impact of the trip “was just welcoming a new culture into my own life.”

A  highlight was when more than 30 tribes that spoke 50 different languages all congregated at a cultural center during her stay. The closeness and togetherness of each tribe or nation — most not knowing the other — was an eye-opener for Williams

“At that cultural center they would celebrate the traditions of all the cultures and be like, ‘yes, we’re from here, but these are still our brothers and sisters. We live with them. We’re all from the same place. We’re all Ugandan deep down,’” said Williams.

The Ugandan business students she was with are from Makerere University Business School. Williams said they will travel to Drake University in Des Moines next February.

Unfortunately, Williams said, she won’t be there to welcome back her new friends. She’ll be in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, studying the history and politics of Europe overseas for a full semester from January until May.