An Angel in Africa

Father Dennis Dease's magnanimous involvement in Uganda reflects his commitment to the mission of the university

KAMPALA, UGANDA - Nine years ago, Father Dennis Dease was preparing to leave for an international conference of Catholic university presidents in this east African country when he got a phone call that changed his life.

And, as it has turned out, the lives of thousands of other people.

The caller, arts patron Roberta Mann Benson, knew he would be in Uganda,  and she had an idea.

"She gave me a sizable check," Dease recalled, "and said, ‘This is for a  qualified student who might come to St. Thomas.’ My first thought was, ‘How am I going to identify a qualified student when I am going to be there for five days in meetings?’

"But a member of the faculty at a Catholic university there approached me and said, ‘I have a qualified student who would love to come to St. Thomas. Is there any way you can help make this happen?’

"I said to myself, ‘It looks like somebody up there is looking out for this student.’"

For Dease, too. For the more than 40 other Ugandan students who have matriculated at St. Thomas. For the dozens of St. Thomas students who have traveled to the country called the "Pearl of Africa" for community service work. And for thousands of poor Ugandans who have received care at two Hope Medical Clinics, which Dease helped to open in Kampala, and next year will be patients at a newly constructed maternity and pediatric hospital.

These programs and many others are part of a partnership between a Minnesota university and a former British colony separated by nine time zones and 8,000 miles of air space. Dease is the first person to admit that he had no expectations Benson’s scholarship offer would evolve, in less than a decade, into the most ambitious international venture in St. Thomas history. But he finds it a nearly perfect fit for one simple and, to him, obvious reason.

"This outreach program in Uganda reflects very clearly the Catholic mission of St. Thomas and the educational mission of St. Thomas: to contribute to the common good," Dease said. "I can’t think of anything that is more on target with our mission."

It is a sunny Saturday morning in Kampala, and Dease is sitting outside the Serena Hotel, where a 15-person St. Thomas delegation is wrapping up a weeklong trip during which it visited the medical clinics and participated in the blessing of the hospital. As he reflects on what he calls "the perfect trip," his eighth to Uganda, Dease talks about vision, persistence, patience and, perhaps most importantly, a certain kind of "connection."

"Sometimes the challenges here can seem overwhelming, but I always remember Sister Yvonne, who taught me physics at St. Michael High School," he said. "She always used to remind us that the first law of physics is that everything is connected. She would write these long, long equations on the blackboard, and if she made a mistake on one little fraction, the conclusion would not come out right. She would erase everything and get chalk all over her black habit, and she would say, ‘Students, remember, the first law of physics is ... ’

"And we would answer, ‘Everything is connected!’

"So you see, you correct one tiny fraction and the whole equation changes. That’s all we have to do - fix one little piece and somehow I’m confident the world will never be the same."

Dease is quick to point out that St. Thomas isn’t the only change agent. The young men and women from Uganda have had an equally significant role.

"When I see how these students are involved in every aspect of college life - sports, clubs, research with professors, tutoring, going on to graduate school - it makes me very grateful we have been able to see that kind of enrichment on our campus,” he said. "They help to fulfill our mission - to do exactly what we were founded to do."

African students, he added, "enrich the education of our students here and better prepare them for the increasingly international community in which they will work. ...

"They are going to change the world - one fraction at a time."

Besides Dease, the biggest change agent has been Charles Lugemwa.

The Uganda native and statistics graduate of Makerere University in Kampala came to Minnesota in 2001 on the advice of his college roommate, who had moved here with his fiancee and enrolled in the master’s program in software engineering at St. Thomas. The roommate, Victor Lukandwa ’02, thought the program would benefit Lugemwa in his job at the Uganda Revenue Authority.

Lugemwa faced a difficult choice. He was married with a young son and lived in Kampala. But his wife Maria, a veterinarian, encouraged him to follow Lukandwa’s advice and he moved to Minnesota. He was amazed at what confronted him - not just the weather, which all Ugandans joke about in a wry manner, but the nature of the education he was about to receive.

"It was totally different from the kind of education I was used to," Lugemwa said. "At Makerere, we did computing, but most of the programs we wrote on paper because we did not have computers. At St. Thomas, everybody had a computer! It was amazing. The professors were friendly, always willing to help. They exposed me to a new teaching style. They were interested in making you what you actually wanted to be."

Lugemwa and Dease met at an African students dinner on campus and the president later sent him an email about his trip to the Kampala conference. When Lugemwa graduated in December 2003 and returned to Uganda, Dease knew he had to stay in touch with his new friend.

"He’s our man in Kampala," Dease said. "The first time I saw Charles in Kampala, I was walking in the parking lot of the hotel and I saw a car that had, in the back window, a University of St. Thomas sticker. I thought, ‘Here I am, on the other side of the world, and there’s a car with a St. Thomas sticker in the back window.’ It was Charles!"

Lugemwa kept asking Dease how to create change and provide opportunities for Ugandan students so they, too, could live out the university’s tagline: "Challenge yourself, change our world."

The potential of enrolling more undergraduate students from Uganda intrigued Dease. Humphrey Tusimiirwe enrolled, and his sisters, Doryne Tunanukye and Mavreen Ananura, also funded by scholarships from Benson (who died in 2010), soon followed.

Dease conferred with Lugemwa about a more structured way to recruit students, and he suggested they explore a relationship with St. Henry’s College, a Catholic junior and senior high school for boys near Masaka, 90 miles southwest of Kampala. Lugemwa, a St. Henry’s graduate, introduced Dease to its headmaster, Brother Francis Brian Matsiko.

"Charles took me to St. Henry’s and we were touring the campus," Dease said. "You could hear the birds singing, like in a cemetery. Charles said, ‘But it is a totally different place when the students are here.’ Then the bell rang and 1,000 students were outside, chatting and laughing as they scurried to another building for their next class. Three minutes later, once again, silence."

Matsiko, a member of the Brothers of Christian Instruction order, promised to identify up to three St. Henry’s graduates a year and Dease agreed to provide full-tuition scholarships. Benefactors have funded many of those scholarships.

The St. Henry’s-St. Thomas pipeline "just kind of grew, naturally," Dease said, and this year 10 St. Henry’s alumni were enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs (two of them have St. Thomas bachelor’s degrees). "I wanted to provide an education to students who had lots of good qualities and good character. The students from St. Henry’s have been tops - extremely well prepared for university studies, with self-discipline, a thirst for learning and great study habits."

Ugandan students also have what Dease called "deep, deep gratitude."

"For them, it’s a one-in-a-million chance to get a university education in the United States, which they recognize as still the best in the world," he said. "They often say they still feel like they are dreaming and they are afraid they are going to wake up, so they make use of every learning opportunity the university provides."

Dease said the Ugandan culture has a special reverence for a residential university such as St. Thomas - as a family - and with that understanding come certain responsibilities.

"The faculty and staff are regarded as in loco parentis, as we used to say in the United States," he said. "We would say mentor figures, but they use the image of father figure and mother figure. We’ve all been humbled by that - the way they look to us for guidance, and you’ll find that’s a common feature of the culture here in Uganda.

"They have great respect for elders. They looked to elders, especially before education became more common, for answers regarding the appropriate time to plant a certain crop or how to deal with an illness. There is an African proverb that an elder dying is like a library burning."

He paused and added, "I have found it very satisfying to find people looking to me for advice." He leaned back and roared in laughter.

Dease also admires the Ugandans’ genteel, unassuming personalities and the uncanny way they use proverbs to address issues. When a student arrived late for a lunch one day, others admonished him by saying, "Latecomers eat bones."

During a disagreement a student had with a professor, friends advised her to wait until the end of the semester, when she had her grade in hand: "Do not insult the crocodile before you cross the water." And Dease finds comfort in the counsel he once received when he was criticized during a controversy: "The lead cow always gets whipped the most."

Dease cites Alex Migambi and Alexander Ssengendo as two undergraduate students who have taken utmost advantage of their St. Thomas experience.

Migambi, a St. Henry’s alumnus, will graduate this May with degrees in political science and international business and will enroll in the St. Thomas School of Law. He wants to work in government in Uganda.

"There are not many people in the world, especially Africa, who get this kind of opportunity," Migambi said. "It’s given me a special appreciation for St. Thomas, and I am going to do my best for my country and to make St. Thomas proud of me."

Migambi, 25, has been a whirlwind on campus. He has served on the Undergraduate Student Government, Globally Minded Students Association and African Nations Students Club, worked in Residence Life and Academic Counseling and studied in the London Business Semester. Last fall, he helped to organize an event that raised $10,000 to build a medical clinic at St. Henry’s.

"I felt I had to prove I could do well at St. Thomas and could compete with American students," he said. "I worked hard to keep my dream of going to law school."

Ssengendo is a junior majoring in communication and journalism and would like to own a business in special events planning or advertising. He has organized trips for students to Chicago, New York and Notre Dame because, "coming from a different culture, we don’t want people to be isolated. We want them to explore new things." He has been back to Uganda only once.

"Some people back home said I had changed a lot - that I had become more social," he said. "Here, I say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ You wouldn’t do that in Uganda. People are more open here. They want to know how I came to America, and to St. Thomas."

At St. Henry’s, Matsiko carefully chooses the students who will go to St. Thomas; Migambi, for example, was head prefect there. Matsiko refers to the relationship between the two institutions as "a partnership, a family," and believes it reflects the St. Henry’s tagline: "For Greater Horizons."

"We look at students who have been here for six years and those who have three other characteristics: a wonderful reputation, academic performance and the right economic background," he said. "They need scholarships, and many of them work (at St. Thomas) to send money to their families in Uganda to help out."

As the family has grown, so has St. Thomas’ involvement in St. Henry’s, located on 36 acres on a hill overlooking Masaka. The school has 40 buildings, mostly single story. One newer building is a computer center with three laboratories, furnished with 800 used computers donated by UnitedHealth Group and shipped by Hope for the City, a Minnetonka-based nonprofit that gives away surplus goods. Dease facilitated those gifts as well as another rather unusual gift in 2006.

"Brother Francis gave me a list of the school’s needs," Dease said. "I took them to Sandy Grieve (then a St. Thomas trustee) and asked him if anything on the list interested him. He said, ‘Yes, the bus.’ The school had an open cattle truck at the time to take students places, so we provided a bus."

Lugemwa and Dease kept the bus a secret.

"Then on St. Henry’s Day, which we celebrate every year, a guy drove it in and presented it to the headmaster," Lugemwa said. "It was a surprise to everybody."

Matsiko gleams with pride as he shows off the 80-passenger bus and points out that Grieve and his wife, Flo, mail him $1,000 every year to pay for gas. The printing on the back of the bus notes the Grieves’ contribution and says, per the couple’s request, "Go With God."

That kind of attitude, enthusiasm and embrace of St. Thomas’ programs in Uganda buoy Dease’s spirits and affirm for him the decision to become involved in the country - as a university and as a person. He insists the benefits are mutual and he believes the Ugandans have helped to change a campus culture that a generation ago was perceived as less than welcoming for students from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

"The Ugandans really enrich our classrooms," he said. "They bring that perspective of what a rare gift a university education is and they help our students better appreciate what we have. They bring a profound respect for the person - old-fashioned manners - and I just love the way they deal with people. They bring a rich cultural heritage that our students find rather remarkable and fascinating.

"They also bring a sense that the world is developing in ways that some of our students might not have been aware. I fully expect our Ugandan students and American students will be engaged in businesses where their paths may cross again and again in the future."

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