UCU Partners launches e-lab pilot to benefit students and organization

By Jimmy Siyasa

It’s only mountains that don’t meet, but people do, goes a famous saying. This came to pass on January 25, when a group of Uganda Christian University (UCU) students met virtually with UCU Partners leadership.

UCU Partners is a two-decades old, non-profit organization that raises awareness about UCU in the United States by seeking material and spiritual support for students. The students, meeting via Zoom, are part of a new UCU Partners e-lab project designed to provide real-world experience to learning while creating products for the organization. Mark Bartels, executive director, and Patricia Huston, communications director, for UCU Partners were coming in virtually from the USA states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, respectively. 

The time was 4 p.m. in Uganda when the curtains opened on the face of Huston. She started by telling the “junior writers” a bit about her journalism and public relations careers. She dusted off any doubts in her capacity to support the writers in their career development by showcasing some of the payoffs from her own professional journey. It was inspiring to behold Huston’s accolades, published literature such as Inviting a Giraffe to Tea (now also available in Luganda), among other achievements. 

This was no doubt a result of hard work. She urged the students to “work hard and be open to learning.” She advised the students to put into practice the writing, photography, videography and social media theories and skills they learn in class and from textbooks. 

“It’s good to acquire facts and figures, to learn the theory of journalism and communication and to be able to take a test to prove that knowledge,” Huston said. “But if you can’t apply what you learned, then of what use is it to you, your country or your work?” 

Together with Bartels, Huston unpacked the mission and vision of the Partners NGO and the relevance of the pilot for the students involved. Prior to the Jan. 1, 2021, launch of the education-product delivery model, Huston and selected UCU alumni and staff generated stories and photos for the organization.  Huston, who has been a volunteer consultant and teacher at UCU since 2012, says the new e-lab model reinforces student learning and provides products for the organization. 

On Feb. 14 – 1.5 months into the e-lab pilot – Huston noted: “The product quality I see so far is impressive.”

Bartels, who is the son-in-law of the first UCU Vice Chancellor Steven Noll, said the organization exists to “raise money and develop partnerships for UCU.” Bartels lived with his family and worked on the UCU-Mukono campus for 10 years. 

Via Zoom, the Uganda Partners leaders rolled out the pilot “Communication Plan,” which was more like a dartboard of expectations for the students. With the on-the-ground guidance of three seasoned Uganda professionals, the 12 UCU journalism students chosen for this new hands-on learning model were eager to shoot right in the bullseye. The Ugandan leadership team under  Huston’s guidance consists of John Semakula, coordinator; Edwin Byarugaba, technical consultant; and Constantine Odongo, editor and social media consultant. Another Ugandan, Frank Obonyo, and an American, Ashton Davey, provide collaborative assistance as ex-officio members of the team. 

John Semakula, UCU Partners e-lab communications coordinator, at left, with some of the UCU journalism/communications students chosen for the pilot project.
John Semakula, UCU Partners e-lab communications coordinator, at left, with some of the UCU journalism/communications students chosen for the pilot project.

According to Huston, the model rollout is designed to start with an emphasis on writing and still photography, followed in the coming months by video and audio products and promotion using traditional and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp). 

“I was nervous at first, because this was the first time I was attending a Zoom meeting, let alone with Americans,” Grace Bisoke, a student who is part of the e-lab project, said, adding: “Surprisingly, everything went well.”

Pauline Ruth Alupo, another student, said: “With my journalism skills, I would like to establish a multimedia production company in Uganda. One that creates high quality content for the global audience.” 

The youthful Ugandans left the late January 2021 virtual launch meeting with a clearer vision of their careers and excited and eager to roll up their sleeves and get into the trenches. 

With that, Bartels hopes that at the end of the day, the “donors will be able to see the huge impact they can have by investing in Uganda Christian University and the UCU students.” He added, “We are also excited by the opportunity to contribute directly to the experience of these students—giving them opportunities to grow and develop their professional skills.”

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