CU Denver student in Uganda

For most of us, traveling abroad is just another dream on the bucket list, but for CU Denver students, this dream is one that comes true every year. Whether it’s on a life-changing Maymester course or for a week-long music festival, our students are participating in the global community.

In collaboration with the the Global Livingston Institute (GLI), a nonprofit organization committed to education and economic opportunities, students and faculty from the College of Arts & Media (CAM) recently traveled to Masaka, Uganda, to assist with the iKnow Concert Series. “The concert series helps bring the community together, but it’s also about destigmatizing HIV and encouraging testing,” said Lauren Brady, a CAM student in the Music and Entertainment Industry Studies department (MEIS). Over the last three years GLI has produced seven concerts which have been attended by over 80,000 Ugandans, 15,000 of whom were tested for HIV; 100 percent of people testing positive were provided with access to long-term treatment and care.

CAM students and concert in Uganda
CAM students observed the iKnow Concert series on a trip to Uganda earlier this fall.

“Simply put, the vision of the GLI is to improve communities globally by encouraging people to listen and think before they act,” said Jamie Van Leeuwen a CU Denver School of Public Affairs alumnus.

While at the concert, participants had access to free HIV testing and other health services. “We even had the chance to work with the nursing staff to administer HIV stigma surveys,” said Isabella Musser, another CAM student in the MEIS department. “Part of GLI’s mission is to provide health services as well as health information that can have a lasting impact after we leave.”

Possibilities of a music production company

A small fishing village, Masaka isn’t the usual location for a large concert. In fact, for many of the locals, it was their first concert. “When the music started, everyone moved toward the stage, but they weren’t sure what to do,” said Musser. “A few people even asked me if they were allowed to dance.”

The concert series featured music by American artists as well as Ugandan superstars. “Imagine Beyonce playing a concert in a Kansas cornfield – that’s what it was like for many of these villagers to see their favorite Ugandan artists,” Musser said.

“One of our primary goals in working with GLI was to observe the concert series, keeping in mind the possibility of starting a music production company in Uganda,” Brady said. Beyond observation, the concert was an opportunity for CAM students to consider how a music production company in Uganda would look different than one in America. “I think it would have to be more flexible, moveable and expansive to work with the Ugandan community,” Brady said.

CAM student with Ugandan children
CAM students called the trip to Uganda a “life-changing experience.”

A large part of GLI’s mission in hosting events such as the iKnow Concert series, is about more than connecting community members with ongoing health services. It’s about creating sustainable opportunities that work within the existing culture and community. Since the entire concert is designed to benefit the local community, it makes sense that it is set up and staffed by community members.

“It was important for me to realize that Uganda doesn’t need our help,” said Musser. “We weren’t there to fix their problems; we were there to provide sustainable opportunities so that Ugandans can help themselves.”

‘We all took away so much’

After nine days of laughter, learning and hard-work, it’s no surprise that CU Denver students look back on their time in Uganda as a life-changing experience. “It was so beautiful and we all took away so much,” Brady said. “I got to bring back the wisdom and life lessons Uganda provided me.”

CAM students at iKnow Concert in Uganda
CAM students enjoyed behind-the-scenes access to the iKnow Concert in Uganda.

GLI encourages students to create conversations and try to understand diverse communities. When everyone has a seat at the table, it doesn’t take long to realize they all have many of the same concerns. By building cross-cultural partnerships, GLI fosters a global community that can work together to take on shared concerns.

“When people think of Uganda they still imagine mud huts, but that’s not what it’s like,” Musser said. “They have cities and businesses, and they do a lot of the same things that we do.”

These kinds of conversations and realizations are exactly why Van Leeuwen, PhD, founded GLI. “The University of Colorado Denver has become a critical part of the listening and thinking that the GLI is involved in with our partners in East Africa as we are learning together what it means to engage in good community development and impact positive change.” Van Leeuwen said. “And when we act together in collaboration with the local community, some really amazing things start to happen!”

GLI’s incredible work changes the lives of everyone involved. “When I came back, I thought a lot about how different life is in America,” Musser said. “Uganda has such a rich sense of community, and it’s given me a whole new perspective on what’s important in my life.”

Learning to see the world from different perspectives is a valuable experience, and it’s available to all CU Denver students. “There’s so much out in the world, and it’s important to get out there and broaden your viewpoint,” Brady said. While CAM continues to foster its relationship with GLI, students can also take advantage of life-changing opportunities through CU Denver’s study abroad and Maymester abroad courses.

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