SUMMER STORIES: Researching Global Education

Summer Stories from Africa is a series of fresh reflections from our students, faculty, and alumni researching and studying on the continent.

After a study abroad course in Uganda this summer, Curriculum and Instruction Professor Maggie Hawkins and her students share memories, reflections and changed perspectives.

Introducing the Program

by Maggie Hawkins

For three weeks in July and August 2015, six graduate students and two faculty members from the School of Education spent three weeks in Uganda as part of a study-abroad course with a dual focus on comparative education and qualitative research. The course was a collaborative effort between the UW and Makerere Schools of Education; I was invited the prior year to engage with Makerere faculty in designing and implementing an intensive 2-week graduate-level course on qualitative research approaches and methodologies for their students and ours, and it came to fruition in this experience.

Our first week in Uganda was spent visiting and working with schools. We initially spent several days at a government-aided primary school in a small village, learning about Ugandan educational policy, curriculum & pedagogies from staff, and sharing instructional materials and lessons.  We then visited several types of primary and secondary schools, ranging from faith-based to elite.  And we traveled to Queen Elizabeth Park to have a safari adventure.

The following two weeks were spent at Makerere University in Kampala, attending class in the mornings, with a variety of afternoon activities (including visits to a home for teen mothers, an orphanage, and to schools to gather interview and observational data for class assignments).  Through discussions with Ugandan peers focused on research epistemologies and stances, approaches and methodologies, identifying research foci and questions, designing studies, interpreting data, and researcher positioning, students learned much about not only qualitative research, but also the culturally-embedded nature of educational research, and comparative differences in educational environments, policies and practices.

What follows is a series of essays and photos by the participating UW students, each addressing different aspects of the trip, attesting to their experiences and learning.

Ugandan Youth

by Simone Lawrence

Photo by Simone Lawrence.

“Hi, Muzungu!” shouts a Ugandan child from under a hut along the side of a dirt road. “Muzungu” – an endearing euphemism for “lost [American] traveler” – seemingly served as an instant code word for a slew of unseen children to race towards us with vigorous waves and eyes lit with genuine delight to welcome our group of travelers. Our presence often resulted in a trail of hospitable and friendly Ugandan youth accompanying us along our hike to the local primary school in Lweza.


The enthusiasm and greetings multiplied once arriving at the local primary school. The smiles were infectious and the innocence was humbling. The students’ unimaginably limited resources both inside and outside of the classroom had no effect on their willingness to learn nor their joyous outlook on life. They welcomed our many duffel bags filled with new school supplies, and our individualized teaching lessons on how to (1) read and write in English class, (2) memorize famous black history figures through yoga poses in History class, and (3) visualize place values through the use of various games in Math class.


Renewed Perspective in Education

by Giselle Martinez-Negrette

This summer I joined a group of five graduate students and two professors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a study abroad program in Uganda. Our goal was to learn more about the educational system of this country, and to take part in a qualitative research methods course with some Ugandan students and faculty at Makerere University in Kampala. During our stay, we spent three weeks visiting schools and communities, talking to teachers, and learning from professors and classmates.

Prior to my trip, I had some preconceived, probably film infused, notions about Uganda—its people, culture, and social environment. However, I never expected what I found there. Uganda is a country bustling with sounds, colors, smells, and living environments that compelled me to adjust my frame of mind from the organized structures I am used to in the US. Almost every moment I spent there was filled with new realizations.

I was mesmerized by the hope and joy I saw in the eyes of children who, despite the difficulties around them, were excited to be at school. I saw an unwavering resilience in the women I interacted with; they talked to me about their roles in shaping a better future for their families and country. I was particularly humbled by the attitudes of the young girls at a teen mothers’ home we visited. From them, I learned that even if you’re pregnant at age 15 and are holding a newborn baby in your arms, dreams are stronger than the harsh realities of life. Also, I was excited to hear the voice of men strongly believing that education could provide a new path for their nation. My Ugandan classmates reflected the strength of individuals who have realized that it is time for their voices to be heard. They appreciated our perspectives, but they also made clear that they were ready to show the world their Uganda and their Africa.


As I reflect about my time in Uganda, one question keeps coming to mind: How has a summer in Africa impacted me as a person, graduate student, and as a teacher? My time in Africa reminded me not to take my education for granted. In Uganda, education is still a “luxury” and not a right for many. It is highly appreciated and connected to dreams, hopes, and a better future. Uganda compelled me to move away from all the known theories into an unknown reality. I closed my eyes to the physical world and opened my mind to the voices of children, so eager to learn that they never got tired of greeting us over and over again: “you’re welcome our visitors.” I was impelled to make connections and better understand, where before there was only evaluation. I was reminded that culture permeates people’s minds and ideas; it influences how we see the world, and how we hope to be perceived by others. Uganda, this summer, filled my mind with a renewed curiosity about the power of education. It left me wondering how my work as a graduate student, researcher, and teacher connects to an ever-changing world where theory and practice sometimes don’t speak the same “language” and often times fail to meet. Africa is situated within the winds of present change and a strong past; and this cacophony worked powerfully in me to renew my education perspective and to inquire beyond what I can see.

Misidentified in Kampala

by T. Lael Simmons

Highly vigilant of my surroundings, I walked with a convoy of pale-skinned companions who seemed to be gliding on puffs of air that rose above the Ugandans in our midst. Like a tyrannical teacher’s nails across a chalkboard, the words crept up to greet us – Mzungu! Mzungu! The slum children called out for coins, shillings, something to make life easier. I looked around to realize that I wasn’t walking on the same air as the others; my path was a bit closer to the Ugandan pavement – though not yet close enough to touch the ground. Mzungu! Mzungu!  Something told me these rhythmic calls weren’t being directed at me…


I slowed down and let the procession proceed – a bevy of brown-skinned children gently offering the palms of their hands for help, circling around the Mzungu. They didn’t slow down for me; they followed the puffs of air that rose a bit higher – Mzungu! Mzungu! But they forged ahead – never breaking stride, or making eye contact – perhaps afraid they may fall from their perch and into the palms of the darker other.

Suddenly a man’s booming voice shouts – Obama! Obama! I turned towards the commotion and realize he’s pointing to me with all seriousness. No hands reach towards me any longer – for a moment I was alone. Startled, I ran to catch up with my travel companions to cross the bustling streets of Kampala. One of the street children silently, swiftly shoved my shoulder as if to say she saw me, too, and my name was not Mzungu or Obama.

Revealing Cultural Biases through Collaboration

by Karissa Warner

The course in qualitative methods at Makerere University brought together graduate students from UW and Uganda. For me, it was a unique experience that allowed me to put theories into practice. While readings and discussions were foundational, the fieldwork in the course was invaluable.


Working in teams made up of American and Ugandan students allowed us to approach research methods from different perspectives. While I was able to learn from the Ugandan educators, I was also made to reflect upon my own stance as a teacher from the United States. Our field work included informal observations within Kampala to get a feel for cultural practices and compare our own interpretations of what, for Ugandans, were acquired social norms. We also performed formal observations in a school setting. Together, we analyzed our observations, and we shared our interpretations, which made our own cultural biases, as they relate to education, explicit. We also performed collaborative interviews of Ugandan teachers. Through the interview process, I learned the importance of acknowledging my role as an outsider and how important having a cultural informant is for a social researcher. I am fortunate and grateful to meet and work with some talented scholars who share enthusiasm in learning about comparative education. In turn, my own interest has been sparked in pursuing further collaborative endeavors in global education research.

Learning to See: Reflections on a Summer Program in Ugandan

by Laura Hamman

Each morning at Makerere University, as the sun slowly breached the hills of Kampala and dispersed the nighttime fog, I left the guesthouse for a jog around campus.  The calm of daybreak was occasionally broken by the noisy cry of a stork overhead, a speedy boda boda (motorcycle taxi), or the laughter of children in colorful uniforms as they traced the pathways towards school.  As I worked my way up and down the hilly terrain, I was grateful for this peaceful time to reflect upon all that I was experiencing in Uganda, to consider what I had learned thus far and the questions that remained.  As I honed my critical eye on issues of educational equity and researcher positionality, I constantly found myself turning inward, reflecting upon my how my own cultural norms and academic training affected the lens through which I viewed Ugandan society and its education system.


Some of my preconceptions about Uganda had been confirmed—there were, indeed, many rural communities with limited resources yet resilient teachers and students—while others had completely missed the mark.  For instance, when I arrived to class on the first day, I was struck by the level of formality in dress: my Ugandan counterparts were sporting suit coats and ties.  My own attire of long, summery skirts and dresses, though intended to be respectful, seemed terribly informal in comparison.  I also quickly learned that we held different paradigms through which we understood teaching and learning.  During one of our graduate classes, we watched a short video of a Ugandan classroom and it became clear that “actively engaged in learning” has multiple manifestations, depending upon the interpretive frame.  Some of my Ugandan colleagues, working from a cognitive lens, perceived children to be actively engaged when highly focused on the task at hand, even if working independently; conversely, my training through a sociocultural framework led me to understand engagement as necessarily social, with peers working together to negotiate meaning. Through our subsequent discussion, I came to realize that both definitions are valid and that my own view limited what I was able to see in the video of the Ugandan classroom.\

Through these experiences and others, I began to push the boundaries of my own understandings about educational research in different contexts.  It became clear that to work towards educational and social equity as a scholar and researcher in international contexts, it is necessary to not only become immersed in the country’s school system through site visits, curricula analysis, and interviews with staff and students but, additionally and perhaps more importantly, to immerse oneself in the context as a learner, recognizing that there are multiple ways of making sense of teaching and learning and that it is only through dialogue and collaboration that “making sense” becomes transformative.  As I begin my third year in the Ph.D. program at UW-Madison, I know that my experiences in Uganda will continue to impact the way I think about educational research and the possibilities for working towards a more equitable global society.

Parenting in Perspective

by Stephanie Shedrow

We needed to leave at 7:45.  It is now 7:55 and I am rushing to get my two-year-old out the door so I can make it to class.  As we step over the mounds of dirty laundry piled up in the living room I realize I forgot my laptop.  Running through the kitchen to retrieve it I glance, longingly, at the coffee maker, knowing caffeine will be my only savior after my sleepless night of getting kicked in the head by my daughter—who ended up in bed with us at 3:00 am after a crying spell—and my husband’s endless snoring due to a cold and ear-infection.  I grab the laptop, scale the laundry, and get my daughter into the car.  It is now 8:02. I won’t have time to get anything to eat until after class, nor will I be able to finish the assigned reading.  “Why is my life so complicated?” I ask myself as I navigate through the winding suburbs to the babysitter’s house.

Three months later I sit in a van next to Mugerwa, the driver taking me from Makerere University in Kampala to Entebbe international airport.  I have completed a three-week study abroad course in Uganda.  During our fifty kilometer trip, Mugerwa and I talk.  After talking about our children (he has five), Mugerwa asks me how many siblings I have.  He seems surprised when I say only one sister.  Mugerwa explains that people in Uganda have many children. Mugerwa quietly says, “Ugandans must have many children because of disease and stuff.” I felt a lump swelling in my throat.

While incomprehensible to my heart, my mind can easily understand how diseases plague Ugandans—both young and old.  What is difficult to internalize is what I presumed Mugerwa meant by other stuff.  During our stay, my professor explained that while many Ugandans struggle to pay school fees and purchase school uniforms, the uniforms themselves are a vitally important symbol in Uganda.  They are an indicator that children are being looked after and cared for.  In Uganda, many children are orphaned, living with only one parent or relatives.  These children, who often cannot attend school because of lack of resources, become targets for abduction.

Yet uniforms are not always enough.  During an interview with the Head Teacher from a public school in Kampala, we learned that parents often were reluctant to send their children to that school because it did not have a fence and was on a bustling street. The children were not safe, even while at school.

As I sat there next to Mugerwa, the van slowly crawling through villages, I saw dozens and dozens of mothers and children through my open window.  Women carrying babies on their backs and a giant tub of fruit on their heads; children enthusiastically playing with empty pop bottles and discarded tires; a nursing mother gazing into her child’s eyes while still tending to her store.  I thought of all that I had heard, seen, and felt in the past three weeks.   Suddenly my “complicated” life seemed ridiculously easy and simplistic, and I felt a new appreciation for the tenacity and courage that all Ugandans, but especially the mothers, exhibit on a daily basis.

My time in Uganda was priceless and I plan to return and revisit the schools and people I made connections with.  During the trip I worried I would forget all the life-lessons I gained along the journey.  I haven’t yet.  I often think about those whom I met a half-a-world away, and wonder what they are doing and how they are managing.  I try not to think of myself as “lucky” because I don’t want to position myself or my life as better in any way.  But I do know that my daily tasks are easier and my worries are much less burdensome.  I hope to be able to keep this newfound perspective for years to come; and for the next time my daughter’s tantrum embarrasses me at the supermarket, makes me late for class, or prevents me from getting any sleep.