Ever wanted to change the world? To be able to travel? There are many university students who dream of travelling the globe and doing something worthwhile. Yet in the midst of papers, exams, and all-nighters, it is easy to lose sight of those aspirations and fall into a dreary routine of work and school. But there is one program at SFU worth considering that tackles both of these goals at once.
Semester in Development is a program that is unlike any offered by SFU. It is a unique study abroad opportunity that not only allows students to earn academic credit at an institution away from home, but also allows them to gain work experience by working with nonprofit organizations in those countries. This experience is currently being offered in Kampala, Uganda.
If SFU doesn’t run this program, then who does?
You may have had friends go on exchange or attend a field school through International Services for Students at SFU, but the organization who runs this program, Insight Global Education, is one that is not as well-known.
Insight Global Education was founded in 2013 and aims to address issues within and change perceptions of developing countries. According to their website, they “[design] and [run] experiential, student travel programs that encourage youth to 1) engage, 2) learn, and 3) question.” They are a study abroad program with a purpose, one that is intent on helping students learn about the world and cultivate their professional skills within the nonprofit sector. While they are not affiliated with the university, Insight Global Education does work in partnership with SFU in order to run their programs.
In addition to the Semester in Development program, Insight Global also has a program in Ecuador called Change Lab, which is in partnership with the Beedie School of Business, as well as a Professional Development program.
What is Semester in Development?
The program consists of 12 weeks of studying and interning in Kampala, Uganda. Students complete two courses at Makerere University, which can be transferred back as academic credit for their degree at SFU. Students are then matched with a non-governmental organization (NGO) that aligns with their interests, as they can take their pick from over 20 organizations that Semester in Development is partnered with, and work as an intern for four days a week. These organizations do work in everything ranging from public health in the community, to anti-corruption work, education services, and migrant justice, just to name a few.
Jagvir Kullar is a fourth-year international studies major who participated in the program last year. She is now currently working in a full-time marketing position with Insight Global Education. She encourages students who are considering applying for the program to keep an open mind, as the environment in Kampala is different from what Canadian students are used to. “Don’t shy away from the experience,” she said. “People hear that [the program is based] in East Africa and they tend to get scared, but you don’t realize how important an experience like this is until you actually do it.”
“Going on exchange allows you to study abroad, while doing co-op gives you work experience. We are a hybrid option, so you get to study and intern at the same time,” she added. “We are also extremely affordable compared to other exchange programs.”
Life in Uganda
Many Canadians have preconceptions of Uganda or other countries in Africa due to their representation in the media, as many countries on the continent are often depicted as places of poverty and desolation. Yet the current cohort of Semester of Development students are discovering the beauty of a country that is often overlooked by so many of us.
Vancouver is a bustling city, and even on Burnaby Mountain where we have our classes, students often become consumed with the busyness of academic life. Life in Uganda is much more laidback.
“Everything is very slow and relaxed, especially at work. It’s not fast-paced like back home,” said Kelsey Eberwein, a third-year health sciences student currently on exchange. “I’ve learned to be patient and mindful, and to keep myself busy with other tasks while waiting for other people.”
Her classmate and fellow traveller Dhwani Babla, a fifth-year health sciences major, found making her way around the city to be at once challenging and exciting. “One of the most valuable experiences has been living in an unknown city and trying to figure life out,” she said. “Every day teaches me something new. It is challenging to deal with unresponsive Ubers or slow border guards, but eventually you learn to love it all because “TIA, AKA, ‘This is Africa.’”
Jennifer Walton, a third-year global environmental systems major and another student who will be returning from Uganda at the end of August, remarked on her academic life, “Studying at Makerere University hasn’t been too much different than at SFU, except for the smaller class sizes and the lack of projectors. There are also way less midterms and final exams — which I’m not complaining about! There is also a lack of attention paid to time. If you’re 15 minutes late, it’s not a big deal.”
The benefits go beyond graduation
One of the valuable and unique aspects of Semester in Development is the chance for students to intern at a NGO of their choice. Students are matched with an organization that aligns with their interest in working with one of the following five sectors: youth engagement and education, social enterprise and social business, public health and social work, environment and sustainability, or advocacy and governance. The aim of this internship is for students to develop professional skills and gain international work experience in their field of interest.
Eberwein is currently working for Uganda Youth Development Link, a non-profit organization that focuses on enhancing the socio-economic transformation of disadvantaged and vulnerable youth. The organization provides services and information regarding alcohol and drug abuse, sexual reproductive health, child protection, and HIV/AIDS prevention and care. She is only in the office for two out of the four days per week, and spends the other two days in the field interacting with youth, handing out questionnaires and surveys for them to complete, and completing group and individual counselling sessions.
In contrast, Babla is working with an organization called LifeNet International that provides health care. They work with faith-based organizations on improving primary health care in rural settings by providing both management and medical training to staff. Her main task as an intern at LifeNet has been to work on a project that focuses on non-communicable diseases, specifically diabetes and hypertension. “I do site visits to gain insight into the everyday workings of different health centres in order to get a better idea on whether or not our pilot project is plausible. Semester in Development was the the perfect opportunity explore my growing passion in global health,” she said of her experience.
Walton is also exploring her passion for environmental sustainability in her internship with Global Rights Alert, a NGO that promotes the good governance of Uganda’s natural resources such as oil, gas, and minerals. Her tasks include writing articles as well as editing and helping with the writing of reports published by the organization. “The most valuable experience in the program so far for me has been working for my NGO,” Walton said. “Working in the extractives sector in Uganda has been very interesting and I have learned so much!”
Growing personally and professionally
While there is a clear professional and academic aspect to this program, the personal growth that students experience when spending 12 weeks in Uganda is invaluable.
“Personally, the most valuable thing is the personal growth,” explained Kullar. “Most people say that the internship is the most valuable, but all the little things like [encountering] complications at the airport and the fact that this was the first time travelling on my own made me grow as a person.”
The close relationships that students completing the program develop with each other is also an important part of the experience as well. “Each and every person in this cohort is unique and being a part of it has given me the opportunity to create new friendships,” gushed Babla.
When asked about what advice they would give to students who are considering applying for the program, Walton had this to say: “Be prepared for an adventure! There are so many cool and fun things to do in Kampala and so many amazing places to travel.”
“Take it all in. The good and the bad,” Eberwein added. “Be mindful of your surroundings. At first, you may feel homesick, I know I did for sure, so find things that make you feel like you’re at home.”
As for the impact that the Semester in Development program has on a student’s life? The memories they make will last a lifetime. Kullar fondly recollected her experiences with the program when she said, “Any new place you go will resonate with you for a long time, and that place stays with you. Everyone in your life is going to try to make you fit back into the puzzle piece of who you were when you get back, but you have changed so much.”