North American university program marks 20th year at UCU


Story By Nathan Simbilyabo and Bena Nekesa

Photos, Video by Nathan Simbilyabo

In 2004, Mark and Abby Bartels embarked on a journey to create a unique educational experience for students from Christian colleges and universities in North America. What started as the Uganda Studies Program (USP) at Uganda Christian University (UCU) has now blossomed into a 20-year legacy of cultural exchange and academic learning.

“We learned early that relationships would be the key to the success of the program,” said Mark Bartels, now executive director of a USA-based nonprofit, Uganda Partners. “Beyond the essential rapport with the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) and UCU was that the program provided relationships with other students, host families, faculty members and supervisors – primarily Ugandans.”

Now living in Pennsylvania, Mark and Abby, who had USP founding roles of coordinator and assistant coordinator, respectively, spent 10 years at UCU, working, living and raising their three children there.  Both are graduates of Wheaton (Illinois) College, which is one of more than 100 higher education institutions under the CCCU umbrella. 

When the couple launched USP 20 years ago, Abby’s father, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll, was UCU’s Vice Chancellor. 

According to Mark, CCCU had other programs designed with academics and home stays  in Russia, China, Egypt, Costa Rica and England. One different distinction was that USP was the first CCCU program to be closely partnered and embedded within a Christian university. A key UCU component was alignment with the Honors College, coordinated then by the Rev. Canon Dr. Sam Opol, assisted by his wife, Margaret. 

Today, the USP is a program with a focus on Social work, Global Health, and Interdisciplinary studies, offering students a wide range of educational opportunities. Rachel Robinson, the program director for the past 10 years,  leaves her post in June. The director oversees the day-to-day operation and the transformative experience it provides for students.

About the USP Program at UCU

When applying for the Uganda Studies Program at UCU, students choose from one of the following academic concentrations: Social Work, Global Health, or Interdisciplinary, and engage in internships at different organizations depending on their area of study.

The program also creates a different learning experience for students in Uganda and Africa as a whole, arranging for a student to be placed with a host family on arrival, and during the trip they stay in villages for a week in  which a student can learn what academics cannot give. 

During one of two semesters known at UCU as Advent/Fall and Spring/Easter Semester, they do a homestay in Kapchorwa or Serere. At the end of a semester over the years, they make a final study trip to Northern Uganda or Rwanda and finish with a debrief in Entebbe before returning to North America.

The USP since its inception boasts of up to 970 alumni including 120 males and the rest females, who have since become global alumni ambassadors of UCU and sponsors in partnership with UCU. For over two decades of USP existence, the program has had over 93 American and Ugandan staff members, including a coordinator, program assistant and a homestay coordinator.

Rachel’s Journey with USP

On April 10, the USP celebrated two major milestones in its history: first, its 20th anniversary since 2004; and second, honoring Rachel Robinson for her leadership as director of the Program. Outgoing students also bade farewell. 

USP director, Rachel Robinson, left, is leaving her leadership position that will be assumed by Emily Entsminger, right, on June 1.
USP director, Rachel Robinson, left, is leaving her leadership position that will be assumed by Emily Entsminger, right, on June 1.

Rachel’s leadership journey began in 2014 when Mark, now executive director of UCU Partners, moved back to the USA. Her tenure with USP started in 2010 while she was serving as the Coordinator of the Intercultural Ministry Mission Emphasis (IMME). Effective June 1, the USP lead position will be assumed by Emily Entsminger, a USP alum who has been serving as a Student  Life Coordinator.

“I have many memories – both good and challenging – from the years in the role of the directorate,” Rachel said. “One of the difficult memories is the bomb attack that happened in one of the universities in Kenya in 2015.” The Garissa University College attack in Kenya took place in April 2015 when gunmen stormed the institution, massacring 148 and injuring 79 more people.

“It was a serious crisis that happened because from that we were called to evacuate our students before the end of their semester,” she said. “That semester we had farewell without students.”

USP director, Rachel Robinson, center, participates in a recent cake cutting event on UCU Mukono campus.
USP director, Rachel Robinson, center, participates in a recent cake cutting event on UCU Mukono campus.

One of  Racheal’s highlights during her service under USP were trips to Rwanda where she and USP cohorts interacted with a Rwandese national with Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Assistance (CARSA), Christophe Mbonyingabo, who told them about the Rwandese genocide of 1994 and reconciliation and recovery that was happening.

When asked about her next step, Rachel expressed uncertainty but asserted “trust in God” both for her and USP.

“Whenever there is a success, mostly the directors and leaders get the praise, while I didn’t do it alone and mostly every time there are people in the background working overtime,” she said. “I am undoubtedly confident with the coming director of USP that even if it doesn’t go well or it goes well, she will do well.” 

What others say

The April celebration was attended by many guests including the host families, homestay families, roommates, former USP staff including the former Vice Chancellor Rev. Canon Dr. John Senyonyi, Deputy Vice Chancellor Finance and Administration David Mugawe and University Chaplain Rev. Canon Paul Wasswa Ssembiro. 

“I have seen this program grow and go through different seasons, both difficult and good, for example during COVID-19 and the attack on the university in Kenya in 2015,” recalled Dr. Senyonyi during his speech. “But the outgoing director, with whom I joined UCU almost at the same time, has worked so hard, so I say, Rachel, you must come back because we still need you.” 

David Mugawe, Deputy Vice Chancellor Finance and Administration, and outgoing USP director, Rachel Robinson, with recognition plaque.
David Mugawe, Deputy Vice Chancellor Finance and Administration, and outgoing USP director, Rachel Robinson, with recognition plaque.

The UCU Directorate of Student Affairs, Pamela Tumwebaze, added appreciation to Rachel “as a colleague and close friend.”

“Rachel had become like a sister to me,” Pamela said. “I will miss her. I wish I could convince her to stay, and I do not know what word I will use.”

During his speech, Mugawe presented Rachel with an award in recognition of her good work and thanked her on behalf of the university community.

The ceremony concluded with the cutting of cake, a meal, a touching slideshow of memories and well-wishes from friends, and officially closed with prayer by the UCU Chaplain.

Another commemoration with an audience of USP alumni  is planned in July in the USA state of Colorado. 

As USP marks its 20th anniversary and its impact, it remains committed to providing students with immersive educational experiences that broaden their horizons and shape their worldview. Most importantly, it continues to inspire students to understand and appreciate other cultures.