Skip to main content

Koret Fellowship Program

Madison Hokans
Madison Hokans-Csurilla

Child Studies and Psychology major, class of 2019

This summer, I volunteered with IVHQ program and spent five weeks in Mutungo, Uganda volunteering at Chrystal Children’s Center and Sancta Maria Primary School. I lived in a volunteer house atop a hill in Mutungo with fifty volunteers representing nations all across the globe. I spent the first two weeks in a classroom and caring for newborn babies at Chrystal’s orphanage. The remaining three weeks I was a teacher for a primary class consisting of three playful, loving students.

It took nearly two weeks for me to feel comfortable and adjusted in the new environment that Uganda presented. I remember walking down the red dirt roads and sticking out like a sore thumb. The light color of my skin attracted so much attention that I was unaccustomed to, and I’d constantly hear shouts of ‘mzungu’ – a common term for ‘white person’ throughout Uganda and neighboring African countries. This attention wasn’t delivered in a derogatory manner, and it became endearing to see the children’s excitement as they’d call out “bye mzungu” and wave ferociously to gain your attention.

During my first week, I was walking through Mutungo’s village road still feeling a bit uncomfortable by the abundance of people, market stalls, and houses on a single street. I was in an overwhelming state of sensory overload. But in the midst of feeling this, and questioning whether or not I’d ever be comfortable, a small hand reached up to grab mine. A little girl from the local village had raced up to hold my hand and walk alongside me. Immediately, I felt overwhelmed with joy, love, and belonging. She couldn’t speak English so we could not verbally communicate, but it was enough to simply hold hands and exchange a smile. It struck me how simple it was, and can be, to love people…and how willing these children were to give and receive love, even with the likes of strangers.

My time in Uganda was peppered with these small, powerful instances of love. For instance, while teaching at Sancta Maria Primary School, I partook in the daily breaks for snacks and tea. One day, I was sitting with the ‘Baby Class’ where one student did not have a snack of their own to eat during this time. To my amazement, Teacher Ruth told the small class of three-year-olds to each give a portion of their own snacks to the child lacking their their own. From a young age, these children are being taught to care for one another, and it was a beautiful scene.

However, there were also many challenging situations. My students, aged six and seven, had razorblades to use as pencil sharpeners. I couldn’t even help them sharpen their pencils! Classrooms had to share a single eraser which is incredibly disruptive to the learning process. What a privilege it is to go to school with all the supplies you could possibly need…and then more. Cold showers, hand washing clothes, toilets that rarely flushed, mosquito nets, and a rat in my room. Yet these are small grievances compared to the reality that many Ugandans live today.

Honestly, whenever I am asked about the hardest part of being in Uganda, my mind jumps to baby Samuel. While at Chrystal’s, I spent the bulk of my time with the newborn Victor since he had cerebral palsy and I’d learned to do his stretches with him. But Samuel was still a baby that I’d held and had fed. We’d received him my first week at two-days old and yet to be named. In my last week in Uganda, I learned that baby Samuel had been rushed to the hospital, unable to breathe due to pneumonia and a host of other diseases. Samuel lost his battle for life, and passed away shortly after being admitted.

My heart broke. This was the first time I had to see pictures of a baby’s funeral and know that I had held that child. That I had seen him smile. But my heart didn’t just break for Samuel. It also broke for his mother, and the reality that many women face in Uganda. It was disheartening to see the disgust that local Ugandans and many fellow volunteers held for Samuel’s mother. I couldn’t even imagine what that must have felt like for her, and I imagine it took a great amount of bravery to show her face there. She too is a victim of the system. And her action was not one of malice, but of desperation. It was a devastating situation; unfortunately, it is not an uncommon one in Uganda.

The opportunity I was given in Uganda is one that will impact me for a lifetime. Uganda was difficult emotionally, and that challenge has immensely increased my levels of self-efficacy. Independently traveling to East Africa and forming new friendships from across the globe is incredibly empowering! My mind is open to all possibility, even pursuing a masters abroad or taking up a career in a foreign country. This trip confirmed for me that immersing myself in a new culture for an extended period of time is absolutely something I feel called to do. Regarding my career, Uganda helped me realize that I want to work with an older age group than elementary. Young children are great, but draining and while I enjoyed teaching, I learned that it is incredibly demanding. I was drawn to an abroad experience by my desire to connect with people from a different culture, and forming this bond with my students was my favorite component of being a teacher. Moreover, this trip confirmed an interest in shaping social policy, in addition to the criminal justice system. I’m currently reconsidering the options that both my majors, Child Studies and Psychology, allow me to expand into, and I view this shift to be a positive change of exploration. I’m excited to see where my path goes following this experience!