Tea plantation in Rwanda

“Africa will change you.”

That’s what CU Denver Adjunct Professor Jamie Van Leeuwen, PhD, tells students in his School of Public Affairs (SPA) Maymester course, which takes them to Uganda and Rwanda to study poverty and development.

“We have no idea how, but it will change you,” said Van Leeuwen, an SPA alum who now teaches for the school. “Every student wrestles with something different and ultimately comes to the question, ‘What am I going to do to effect positive change?’”

In May, seven more CU Denver graduate students were “changed by Africa” through Van Leeuwen’s International Development in East Africa course—bringing the total to nearly 60 since he developed the course four years ago.

“I wanted to learn about international development and poverty.”

Alan Kennedy-Shaffer and Ugandan university students
Student Alan Kennedy-Shaffer with university student in Uganda

SPA doctoral student Alan Kennedy-Shaffer, JD, went on this year’s trip, his first time in Africa, and now finds himself looking at the world a little differently.

“I wanted to learn about international development and poverty and issues of equity and justice,” said Kennedy-Shaffer, who anticipates completing his degree in 2021 with a focus on criminal justice policy. “Visiting Uganda and Rwanda left me with sadness at the extreme poverty in East Africa, as well as hope and optimism that the international community can help.”

As part of their immersion experience, the group visited both urban and rural areas in East Africa, meeting with students, community members and business owners. They attended university lectures in the Ugandan capital of Kampala; played soccer with kids in the city’s Katanga Slum; visited a tea plantation in the Rwandan countryside and toured genocide memorials in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

After two weeks of cross-cultural discourse, Kennedy-Shaffer feels more motivated to forge partnerships abroad to address issues of equity, corruption and development.

“These are really tough and complex questions that are not going to be solved easily,” he said. “It will take conversations and sustained effort by a lot of different parties.”

“CU Denver is open to approaching curricula in a different way.”

CU Denver students in Uganda
CU Denver students spent time at the Entusi Retreat Center in Uganda.

Conversations are the bread and butter of this SPA Maymester course, which Van Leeuwen shaped based on his own first experience in Uganda more than a decade ago. The course came to life through a partnership between CU Denver and the Global Livingston Institute (GLI), an international development nonprofit organization that Van Leeuwen founded and leads. In 2013, SPA was looking to offer students more international opportunities, and GLI was looking to partner with an academic institution. The match was made.

“What we like about CU Denver is that they’ve been open to approaching curricula in a different way,” said Van Leeuwen, who also serves as senior advisor for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. “CU Denver was willing to think differently about how we could design a curriculum together.”

Both entities benefit from the partnership, as CU Denver students gain international and professional opportunities and GLI receives support for research in Uganda and Rwanda. GLI has created more education initiatives based on the SPA course’s success and built more academic partnerships modeled after its relationship with CU Denver.

“We are really excited that we have a university in our community that will be collaborative and innovative and think big with GLI to figure out ways to engage students and impact change,” he said.

“We engage emerging leaders to take on social issues.”

Peanut butter factory in Uganda
Students meet with a small business owner in Uganda.

While many groups travel to Africa to do hands-on volunteer work, Van Leeuwen’s group seeks first to get to know the local community. Its goal is to break down barriers to reach long-term, sustainable solutions to problems of poverty and development.

One day during the trip, breaking down barriers meant meeting Pam, a local small business owner, and watching her work at her peanut butter company. Another day, it meant having a conversation about government corruption with Sarah, a university student pursuing a master’s in public administration.

“You realize very quickly that you’re in a global society,” Kenney-Shaffer said. “We’re all talking about the same issues of justice and poverty and international collaboration. These are issues facing the whole world.”

And if you ask Van Leeuwen, that’s what it’s all about.

“We engage emerging leaders to take on social issues,” he said. “Now, more than ever, having global conversations is really important.”

CU in the City logo