For Marissa Palacios, maybe it was sharing a drink and a smile with a former child soldier and hearing the woman’s tale of escape and recovery after five horrific years at the hands of Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.
For Anya Dickson, maybe it was the overwhelming grief that engulfed her while sitting amid the bones and photographs of the hundreds of thousands of civilians slaughtered during the genocide in Rwanda, a country that she said has led a transformation so profound, it practically emits kindness.
The prevailing contrasts in the East African countries of Uganda and Rwanda were so striking, the University of Colorado Denver students said they were still processing what stood out about their two-week experience. But both women were sure of one thing: The trip was life-changing.
“This was my sixth trip abroad,” said Dickson, a senior in the Department of Communication and one of eight CU Denver students who took the annual Maymester trip. “This was definitely the hardest. I feel like the most growth occurred for me on this trip.
I feel like the most growth occurred for me on this trip.
̶ Anya Dickson, student
A special trip
Led by Jamie Van Leeuwen, PhD, alumnus and instructor in CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs (SPA), the trip was special for him and his students because CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell joined in the excursion. Horrell, who helped Van Leeuwen create the hosting Global Livingston Institute (GLI), also took part in the GLI Women’s Leadership Retreat.
Engaging with the women leaders from East Africa and the United States during the retreat – including Denver’s early-learning pioneer Anna Jo Haynes and her daughter CU Denver alumna Allegra “Happy” Haynes – renewed Horrell’s hope for the future of women’s roles in global relations, she said. But the overall experience, especially with the students, was equally remarkable, she said.
I walked away with an enormous amount of pride. ̶ Chancellor Dorothy Horrell
“I walked away with an enormous amount of pride in what Jamie and the GLI are accomplishing and in our students, who care so deeply and really understand what it means to be citizens of the world. You cannot do and see the things we did without asking a lot of deep questions and trying to figure out: What does this mean? How do I live my life going forward?”
A powerful adage
By immersing students and community leaders from around the world in the East African countries, from the slums of Kampala to the villages of the jungle, GLI encourages education and community development through its motto: listen, think, act. Embedded in nearly every aspect of the trip, the adage served as a valuable learning tool, one she hopes will be long-lasting for students, Horrell said.
“The GLI context inspires creative thinking and problem-solving that we don’t always draw upon when we are in our comfort zone,” Horrell said. “You have to be willing to step back and examine the layers to understand an issue,” she said. “Oftentimes, in our society, we are so quick to want to fix things that we don’t employ that same kind of thoughtfulness and discipline.”
Combined with Van Leeuwen’s cultural and historical knowledge of the region, Horrell’s passion for learning led to a powerful experience, Palacios said. “It was such a privilege to have her with us. You would have never known she was the chancellor.
She was learning. She was asking questions. She kind of pushed us a little bit to think even further than we were.”
While GLI’s results run the gamut from successful HIV-testing programs to a world-recognized, locally-run resort, “fixing Africa” is not the mission,” Van Leeuwen said. “We are sending students over there because we want them to come back with different perspectives on what it means to do great community development and apply it to the work that they are doing in their own communities.”
Palacios, struck by the devastating living conditions of the slums, hoped the trip would give her a better understanding of the impact of sexual assault in the region. “I learned that it was the No. 1 crime in the slums, and that you don’t talk about it,” said Palacios, a probation officer and graduate student in SPA’s Master of Criminal Justice (MCJ) program. “If a victim speaks up, she is tainted, and her whole family is shunned.”
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Like Palacios, who hopes to return to Uganda to do a capstone project focused on educating citizens and changing perceptions of victims and sexual abuse, Filmon Degena said the trip inspired him to think more broadly about his planned future in medicine. “It kind of woke me up,” said Degena, a biology major who will join CU Denver’s pre-medicine program this fall. “I understand how important my major is going to be.”
Many CU Denver students are making a difference through research and capstone projects in the region, from teaching productive farming techniques to analyzing the impact GLI’s Entusi, a breathtaking “thinking” resort on the tip of a peninsula on Lake Bunyonyi, has on the families of the local workers it lucratively employs, Horrell said.
One of the biggest lessons I’m walking away with is that awful, terrible things happen all the time ̶ genocide, modern slavery, internment camps like we’re seeing right now ̶ but how we progress is by addressing it. ̶ Anya Dickson, student
Both Palacios and Dickson were struck by the abusive tales of the woman abducted as a child by rebel leader Kony’s clan before escaping at age 16. Today, she’s a “beautiful poet,” a mother of two grown children and a very strong woman, said Dickson, who has stayed in contact with the former abductee since returning to Denver.
While both students said they were overwhelmed by the Rwandan genocide museum, where the bones and skulls of some of the nearly 1 million victims are carefully displayed or buried, they said the country’s recovery provided a message of hope.
“One of the biggest lessons I’m walking away with,” Dickson said, “is that awful, terrible things happen all the time ̶ genocide, modern slavery, internment camps like we’re seeing right now ̶ but how we progress is by addressing it. It’s not something Rwandans are hiding,” she said.
“Basically, they are trying to reintegrate all of those people who were actually convicted into the community by offering them
forgiveness through things like community service or giving back to the victims,” Palacios said, comparing the recovery process to a restorative justice program.
Journey of hope
Horrell said she will “cherish” those moments during her trip of watching students engage in spirited discourse surrounding critical issues, and that it reinforces her commitment to the university’s goal of preparing the thoughtful leaders and decision-makers of tomorrow.
“Those kinds of experiences change everything in terms of how you look at yourself and your part in the world,” the chancellor said. “By being immersed in a different place and culture, it’s unavoidable. Your eyes are going to be opened.”
Hope was a resounding theme throughout their journey, with Horrell seeing it in the spirit of the women leaders, and Palacios noting it in the children’s eyes.
“I brought back a renewed sense of gratitude and hope,” Horrell said. “Gratitude for a remarkable experience that reminds me of what is most important, and hope that as each of us does our part, the world can become a safer, healthier and more equitable place.”