By Patty Huston-Holm
The experience that Julia Christy Ayinza Kizza had a year ago couldn’t have been farther from her comfort zone in terms of ethnicity, religion and outdoor temperature and landscape. In her first airplane ride from Africa, she dove in anyway.
“It’s flat and cold,” Julia recalled of her five-month international study experience at Hanze University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands in 2023. Talking in January 2024 while getting a hair weave within the Uganda Christian University (UCU) main campus in Mukono, she added that in comparison, “Uganda has hills” with warm-to-hot days.
Uganda’s year-round, daytime temperatures average in the low 80s Fahrenheit. In the northwestern European country of the Netherlands, winters can be snow covered, and summers average in the low 60s (17 Celsius). The Netherlands, which is sometimes called Holland, is known as one of the most liberal countries in the world with 55% of its citizens declaring to be non-religious. In Uganda, over 80% of the population is Christian.
Julia, a senior in UCU’s School of Business, was the only African among French, Italian and Spanish students and Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese lecturers for her International Marketing and Management cohort. The other three UCU students there at the same time weren’t in her classes because they are in social work.
Since 2017, UCU has offered four business and social work undergraduates the opportunity to study abroad during each late January to early July term within Hanze undergraduate programs of study. More than 30 students, including Dutch counterparts who have come to UCU and completed fieldwork training in Ugandan agencies, have participated. In the six years since the partnership began, two faculty each from UCU and Hanze, have served annually as guest lecturers at the respective locations.
Such collaborations are supported by UCU leadership and coordinated by the Research, Partnerships and Innovation directorate.
According to Kasule Kibirige, head of undergraduate studies, School of Social Sciences, and one of the UCU faculty who guest lectured, the teaching and learning have been “immensely valuable for both students and faculty.”
“Academic networks have developed through regular meetings among faculty members during guest lecture exchanges,” he said. “Student world views have been broadened, and participants indicate gaining broader insights about practice within the academic domains. Participants report increased professional growth and enhanced interest in personal exploration.”
Martin Kabanda, acting dean, UCU School of Business, concurred that the experiences “serve to increase student exposure to learning, culture, and life skills and increase their social network.” Seven business students are part of the Hanze alum with two more going in 2024.
Julia, age 23, is one of the nine from business. For her, the curriculum blend was in international marketing and management, change management and research. The latter involved a group project related to a simulated company offering advice on color applications.
“I knew very little about the Netherlands except that it would be cold and that people there have a special celebration called King’s Day every April,” she said. The national holiday celebrates King Willem-Alexander’s birthday.
One of four children to professional parents – a father in IT and mother in journalism – Julia is from Kooki in Rakai District, which is southwest of where she grew up in Kampala.
“Being here taught me to grow up, to realize that people around the world think differently, and I can’t take offense to that,” she said, recalling one student who believed her life includes lions and mud huts.
Julia overcame homesickness and three bouts of flu without her usual emotional and physical support system that was over 3,800 miles away. She engaged in student work of cleaning rooms for 12 euros ($13) an hour to support her financial needs in a country with an average food cost of $40 a day, compared to Uganda’s roughly $5 a day cost.
“Jobs are more available there,” she said. “I took advantage of that.”
UCU Julia’s Kind Gesture Articulates Her Faith
Except on snowy days, she rode a bicycle everywhere. She grew to appreciate a simpler life devoid of large ceremonies, “like our big weddings.” She maintained her 4.57 GPA academic standing. While she didn’t spend time talking to students about her faith, it was during one day of the work experience that her Christian character was noticed.
“When a van came around to pick us up, I gave up my seat to another student who looked really tired, and I did it without thinking,” she recalled. “A student asked why I would do that because she never would. I told her I was trying to be nice. Kindness isn’t a strategy but a way of life.”
Additionally, during one exercise when students were asked to prioritize their values and others listed religion last, Julie put it first.
“It was a bit awkward because I’m used to being surrounded by people that think like me,” Julia said. “I found more (like-minded thinkers) as I attended a local church. I stayed away from parties that were mostly loud music and alcohol.”
Regardless of challenges, Julia says she “came back a better person.” As she graduates from UCU in October and thinks about her next steps – an HR consultant or owner of a beauty school – she sees her international experience as a reminder to avoid complaining and a lesson in flexibility.
To Holland, she offers up the only Dutch word she recalls: “Dank je wel.” Translated to English, that’s “thank you.”