First Time Travel to the United States: The Experience of a Professional Fellow
Priscilla Mugume Kisakye is a 2022 Fellow in the Professional Fellows Program on Inclusive Civic Engagement. This program is sponsored by the U.S Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and is administered by the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at the University of Massachusetts Boston in partnership with Humanity and Inclusion (HI). The following blog post was written by guest author Priscilla Mugume Kisakye.
This Fellowship experience has been a dream come true! Traveling to the US for the first time, I was anxious and unsure about what to expect but excited at the same time.
Little did I know that I would begin my Fellowship on a downside. I tested positive for COVID-19 on my second day in Minot, North Dakota, and had to move out of my homestay into a hotel. It was such a shock for me since I had been fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.
However, I “made lemonade out of lemons,” as the saying goes. I used the first quarantine week to read about American culture, and I had online meetings with my mentors who introduced me to their organization and the various fellowship activities planned for me. When I wasn’t in meetings or working, I did some window shopping, which I loved!
Minot is a great place — except for the weather. It is so cold that I had to break up my evening walks, running into stores every 10 meters so I could warm up before continuing. Fortunately, I got well in a few days and was able to kickstart my fellowship training.
I have been placed at the North Dakota Center for Persons with Disabilities, under the mentorship of Drs. Evan Borisinkoff and Lori Garnes. While here, I have had hands-on interactions with many disability services organizations, such as Pathfinder Services, Family Voices and Rehabilitation Services Inc., as well as the Special Education Department at Minot State University.
My biggest takeaway has been that there is a need for persons with disabilities to show up and be part of the advocacy themselves! Watching the documentary Crip Cramp: A Disability Revolution and listening to the various disability inclusion players in North Dakota has taught me that advocacy is a journey and requires concerted efforts from all.
During my fellowship, I had an opportunity to guest-lecture in social work and special education classes at Minot State University. Talking about the situation of disability Inclusion in Uganda was eye-opening to the students.
As a volunteer at the Cornerstone Church soup kitchen, I helped prepare cheese sauce and desserts, and served all those who came for the food. This was a first-time experience for me. Looking at how the community takes care of the underprivileged and seeing the bright faces and smiles of the homeless people as I put food on their plates filled my heart with so much joy.
I also attended the celebration of Indigenous People’s Day at Minot State University. It was fun to join in the love dance with the Native Americans and have a “taste” of their culture. Through this experience, I learned that we all have a heritage that makes us who we are. We ought to preserve this heritage so we can pass it on to the coming generations.
What I enjoyed most during my fellowship was the one-on-one conversations with persons with disabilities — young and old — and their families. I was thrilled to hear stories of how parents and their children with disabilities have achieved inclusion through self-advocacy. There was one particular story that touched me.
It was the story of a mother and her child, Nancy, who has Down syndrome. When Nancy was in elementary school, her mother wrote a letter to all the parents in Nancy’s class to tell them about Down syndrome and how she would like her child to be treated. This was the most impactful advocacy strategy, Nancy’s mother said, because her daughter was well understood by her classmates and their parents.
I hope to use this strategy with the parents I work with, too, because I am certain it will be impactful in raising awareness in school communities.
I also learned that inclusive civic engagement in the US is reinforced by law. The Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and other laws have clear provisions to ensure that all persons are engaged and participate in issues that concern them. This has not been an easy achievement, however. It took over 50 years, during which many disability rights activists raised their voices in a bid to have persons with disabilities included in all aspects of society. Watching the movie Crip Cramp reinforced this fact even the more.
In relation to Uganda, I realize that there is a need to educate the public about their rights, their responsibilities, and the provisions in the law. I will include this component in my fellowship follow-on project. Once citizens are aware, they can then ably advocate for their rights from a point of knowledge rather than a point of “begging to be pitied.” That way, civic engagement will be realized.
Initially, I thought I had all it takes to implement my follow-on project. However, through this fellowship experience, I have had to unlearn some of my strategies and learn new ones to help me implement my project.
In consultation with my mentors Drs. Evan Borisinkoff and Lori Garnes, I am developing a training toolkit to enhance parent-level policy advocacy in Uganda. All the tools I am putting together are adaptations from the resources shared with me at North Dakota Center for Persons with Disabilities and the organizations doing disability inclusion work in North Dakota. I am looking forward to training the parent support groups back home and watching them become self-advocates.
My advice to other Fellows is: Learn all you can and strategize to adapt the learnings back home!
I love spending time with my host family and teaching them my (Ugandan) way of cooking, especially for preparing pumpkins. When I first went to Walmart, I wondered why there were so many pumpkins. I asked, “Do you eat all these pumpkins?” They said, “No, those are Halloween decorations. We throw them away afterward.” I was so surprised and I told them how we use pumpkins for meals in my country. I prepared pumpkin and my host family and neighbors who came by enjoyed it so much.
I had a truly wonderful homestay! Staying with Dr. Borisinkoff and his family has been a great experience. I learned about new foods, such as the Canadian pirogues and cabbage rolls. I visited families of children with disabilities, which was a humbling experience for me. I was touched by the love parents have for their children and the parents’ resilience. This has inspired and motivated me to train the parents I work with in Uganda so that they can be as proactive as the parents I have interacted with in the US.
I am grateful to my employer, the Uganda Society for Disabled Children (USDC), for allowing me to pursue this fellowship. I will surely implement all these learnings when I am back home.
Drs. Evan Borisinkoff and Lori Garnes at North Dakota Center for Persons with Disabilities have created lasting connections for me, and I am surely indebted. I am also grateful to Dr. Borisinkoff’s wife, Becky, and the rest of the family for being ‘my home away from home.’
To the US Department of State, ICI — UMass Boston, and Humanity & Inclusion, I am thankful for this opportunity.