Madison Stevens (Franklin College Switzerland), a spring 2013 alumna of SIT’s Post-Conflict Transformation program in Uganda, has won the Forum on Education Abroad’s Undergraduate Research Award. She presented her award-winning research at the Forum’s conference in April. Below, we talk with Madison about her research and her winning the award.
SIT Study Abroad: Why did you choose to study in Uganda?
Madison Stevens: In searching for where to study abroad, I was particularly interested in programs that are based in sub-Saharan Africa, because I have always found that part of the world fascinating both personally and academically. I had already traveled widely in the region with my family, but I hoped for an experience that would allow me a deeper connection with the culture and the possibility of learning the local language. I was looking for a program that was immersive and student-driven, and that allowed a certain amount of independence and flexibility. When I came across SIT’s Uganda program, I was additionally inspired by the opportunity to conduct independent field research, something that I hadn’t been able to do before. The more I looked into the situation in Uganda, the more I was struck by the complicated nature of the conflict and Uganda’s incredible diversity, linguistically and ethnically. SIT’s Uganda: Post-Conflict Transformation program seemed to be the perfect opportunity to pursue these interests and form a meaningful connection in an area and a subject that I am passionate about.
SIT: For your Independent Study Project, you examined land conflicts in Uganda. (Read the abstract.) How did you choose that topic?
MS: Going into the program, I didn’t have a fixed idea of what I wanted to focus on for my Independent Study Project. As a student of comparative literature and cultural studies, minoring in political science and environmental studies, I was looking for an interdisciplinary subject that allowed me to bridge these fields and interact with the culture in a meaningful way. Most of all, I wanted to explore a timely issue in a way that could contribute to the existing body of research and in a small way give back to the host community that taught me so much. So the first time one of our lecturers identified land conflicts as the most serious obstacle to peace in post-conflict Northern Uganda today, I was intrigued. Almost every lecturer after that mentioned the same problem, connecting the issue to subjects as disparate as gender, food security, trauma, and politics, and they emphasized the lack of information that exists about the subject, particularly in more rural districts. I knew I had found my topic.
SIT: What was the most memorable experience you had on the program?
MS: Each and every day on the program was memorable; I see this as one of the key strengths of SIT’s experiential learning program that every lesson (formal or informal) was saturated with the vivid and immediate reality of what was going on around us, at that very moment. That said, perhaps the most meaningful aspect of the program was the time spent with my homestay family. On the day I arrived in my homestay, my Acholi mother’s first act of generosity (out of many) was to give me a local name. Naming in Uganda is a peculiar tradition. While children are given a “Christian name,” their Acholi names are often chosen based on the circumstances surrounding their birth, beliefs regarding their fate, or some kind of nascent personality trait. Alice decided to call me Lanyero, which means “the one who laughs.” This name characterized the nature of our friendship throughout my time there.
One afternoon while she taught me how to cook dinner, we translated the American pop song “Call Me Maybe” (which played on every radio station there) into the local Acholi language, giggling over the absurd lyrics and practicing dance moves. On other days, my host siblings and I shared sticky mangoes from the tree outside the house and played monkey in the middle with neighbors’ children. My language skills grew by leaps and bounds during the time with my family, and they gave me the cultural skills necessary to succeed in my research. Juxtaposed with the serious academics of the program, I treasured the time spent relaxing and laughing with my family. We have remained close since I left the program, and I still keep in touch with my host mother regularly.
SIT: You’ve recently been awarded the Forum on Education Abroad’s Undergraduate Research Award. What does this mean for you?
MS: I am honored and humbled to be a recipient of this year’s FEA’s Undergraduate Research Award. For me personally, it is enormously encouraging to be recognized for work that I am passionate about and proud of, and that I hope will contribute at least in some small way to solving this devastating issue. This award is a reflection not only of the work that I put in, but of the incredible local support system that made this research possible. It is an affirmation of the role that my many teachers — from host families to program staff to community leaders — played in making this the most rewarding educational experience of my life. This research captivated and consumed me, and has continued to do so since I left the program. I have spent the past few months exploring ways to expand this research, topically and geographically, and hope to write my senior thesis about customary land in post-conflict zones. Even before I heard about the FEA award, I was planning on returning to Uganda to continue research after I finish my undergraduate degree. This bolsters my resolve to continue working on these issues and to continue looking for ways to share these experiences. Not only am I extremely gratified to accept this award, but I am inspired to keep the ball rolling.
SIT: What excites you most about presenting your work at the Forum’s conference?
MS: After Uganda, I am beyond excited to get a chance to meet people who genuinely care about the student experience and who believe in the potential of undergraduate research! I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to share with them not only my findings but what that experience was like, and what made it so rewarding for me. Presenting my work in front of such a distinguished audience is a daunting prospect, but I am thrilled to be able to spread some awareness about this issue, which I see as crucial for fostering sustainable development in Northern Uganda today. I am excited to hear about the research conducted by my fellow awardee, Narintohn Luangrath, and to learn from professionals involved in the conference during the workshop sessions. Most of all, I am excited to be a part of the continuing conversation about the role of study abroad in educating global citizens.