By Pauline Luba
The language barrier, homesickness and culture shock are some of the challenges Nathanael Simbilyabo encountered as a new university student. Since Simbilyabo, a Ugandan national of the Democratic Republic (DR) of Congo, had his pre-university education conducted in French, it took a big leap of faith for him to come to terms with studying in Uganda, where English is the national language and medium of instruction in schools.
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The Journey of a Congolese Student
In 2021, he was admitted to Uganda Christian University (UCU) to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Communication. Even the bridge course he and other international students took was challenging. The Higher Education Certificate (HEC) program is bridge support for all international students who studied A’level from outside Uganda.
“When I came to Uganda, I did not know English,” said Simbilyabo, adding: “I learned it in HEC. It bridged the gap.”
Life was tough for Simbilyabo. As if learning a new language was not hard enough, he had to find ways of overcoming homesickness on top of the financial challenges that many students face. One day, he was hit by a bodaboda as he crossed the streets. In DR Congo, it is an unwritten rule that men do not shed tears – a rule he broke that day.
However, he was eventually able to conquer the challenges and now says he would not trade studying at UCU for anything. He says the university has exposed him to learning the cultures of people from other parts of the world.
“UCU equips someone spiritually, physically and mentally,” Simbilyabo said, adding: “I love this university. It has helped me.”
And it’s not just Simbilyabo who has attested to the spiritual growth that UCU students get. Many of them cite the community hour fellowship every Tuesday and Thursday as university activities that help to cement their faith in an institution that seeks to fully incorporate the Christian gospel in its programs.
The Experience of an American Student
For Carolyn Shonkweiler, the five months that she has spent on the UCU campus have been more than enough for her to discover the university’s value. In January 2023, Shonkweiler was granted the opportunity for an exchange program with UCU, under the America-based Uganda Studies Program. She left Dordt University, a private evangelical Christian university in Iowa, to be a resident of UCU for one semester.
“I was definitely pushed out of my comfort zone,” Shonkweiler said. “I didn’t know anyone; I didn’t know if they would like me. But I have really enjoyed my experience here. I have made new friends and seen the world and the culture of the Ugandan people.”
Shonkweiler said in the beginning, she found it hard to adjust to the food. However, after some time, she started falling in love with some of the Ugandan delicacies, such as rolex (chapatti rolled with fried eggs). She said she has enjoyed the hospitality of the Ugandan friends she has made while here and would recommend UCU to any international student wishing to study in Uganda.
Rodney Ngabirano, from Uganda, was among the first students to apply to join UCU during the September intake in 2021. At the time, due to the pandemic-induced lockdown, many institutions of higher learning were struggling to come to terms with virtual learning. However, for UCU, the case was different. In a 2022 article for Uganda Partners, Dr. Stephen Kyakulumbye, a senior lecturer at UCU, said the movement to start online learning began five years before Covid.
At UCU, the idea for virtual learning was advanced in 2016 when five UCU faculty members were chosen for online teaching, and virtual training in Muranga, Kenya. Kyakulumbye, already known for his expertise in Information Systems Curriculum Design, relished the fact that he was among the five. And it is innovations like these that attracted students like Ngabirano because it was evident, they were joining a university with an already tried and tested setup.
Ngabirano says he is impressed by the level of professionalism of many of the staff members who are always available for consultations, as well as the cleaners who ensure the students operate in a hygienic environment.
The fact that UCU academics push students to put classroom theory into practice has enabled the students to test the world of work before they eventually face it. For instance, by supporting law students to take part in moot competitions, they are being exposed to the philosophy of law. Last year, UCU journalism students put into practice what they learned by producing a movie that earned a nomination for a national films award in Uganda.
The Experience of a Master’s Student
Esther Aguku, a Ugandan and the Executive Officer in the Office of the Vice Chancellor said the UCU master’s courses help to mould the students for the practical world. She graduated from UCU with a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology.
“I have been a student here and elsewhere,” she said. “I prefer UCU on any day. The class wasn’t just class; I built stronger relationships as a student. I would recommend this university to anyone seeking higher education.”