Nursing team in Uganda

Service learning expands to Uganda

Service learning at Johnson County Community College has expanded to include the struggling region of northern Uganda, strengthening JCCC’s commitment to service learning on an international level. 

For the past two years, nursing students from JCCC have completed a three-week medical mission at St. Mary’s Hospital Lacor (pronounced Latch-o) in the Gulu district of northern Uganda. 

Mary Smith, professor of nursing for JCCC, has been a strong advocate for the project. 

“You find out more about who you are and what you are capable of doing. This is an opportunity where students are really in some uncomfortable situations. You find out about your resiliency,” she said. 

Zamierowski’s invitation 

Since 1998 students from JCCC have traveled to Las Pintas, Mexico, an impoverished community on the outskirts of Guadalajara. They have helped with medical and dental care and most recently completed a solar-power project. 

The JCCC connection to Uganda began with an invitation from Dr. David Zamierowski, the Healthcare Simulation Center medical adviser at JCCC. Smith and Kathy Carver, professor of nursing, accompanied him in 2009 to the war-torn African country. 

Those days were just enough for them to realize they needed to help more than their short trip would allow. 

Ugandans were trying their best to educate a new cadre of nurses, but it proved difficult to recover from chaos. They wanted to learn so much, explained Smith. They just needed someone to help support them. 

In June 2012, the first group of nursing students – four from JCCC, four from Rockhurst University and four from the University of Kansas – introduced themselves to the nursing students of Lacor. 

“We learned a lot from that first year,” Smith said. “The collaboration we began [with Rockhurst and KU] was rich, as was the connection to the hospital, so continuing that collaboration into a second year was a definite positive.” 

Building a team 

Students in the second-year trip benefited from every greater teambuilding before the trip. Smith organized a retreat for the students in Parkville, Mo., and the guest of honor was Sister Carmel Abwot, a nursing instructor from a hospital a few hours from Lacor who came to visit JCCC that month. 

“The students learned so much from Sister Carmel,” she said. “They were allowed to ask question about the culture, about what they might expect, and that really helped prepare them.” 

For the 2013 visit, American students were paired with a “mentor.” This mentor would lead the visitors through each step of the hospital visit. That relationship component made the experience even richer, Smith said, for both the mentor and mentee. 

Learning and growing 

While in Uganda, Carver dug out the simulators that had been delivered previously and set up an African version of the Healthcare Simulation Center she oversees at JCCC. 

While teaching a class in midwifery, Carver and another instructor simulated hemorrhaging during childbirth, with simulated blood everywhere. That was the moment when an entourage from the government’s Ministry of Health decided to meet the American teachers. 

“That was quite a moment,” Carver said, laughing. 

Other moments proved to be less humorous. Students watched a birth where only one baby from a set of twins could be saved. They saw one child die of malnutrition. 

“We don’t shield them from things like that,” Smith explained. “It’s part of the experience, unpleasant and heart-wrenching as it is.” 

JCCC President Joe Sopcich said the Uganda initiative brings together service learning and international study

“Students hone their skills in an environment that couldn’t be more different from what they know in Johnson County and provide much-needed support in these communities,” he said.  “I know these students will never forget what they’ve seen and learned in Africa.”