SEAVER COLLEGE – SUMMER IN UGANDA
With approximately 80% of Seaver College students participating in a study abroad program, Pepperdine University is renowned for its owned and operated campus locations across the globe. One of them being Uganda.
Students involved in the Uganda program, have the opportunity to fulfill their REL 301 and COM 313 requirements amid the beautiful, sub-Saharan landscape. Students spend four weeks experiencing the rich blend of cultures and sightseeing some of the world’s most well-known nature preserves, including the Nile River. Along with the excursions, the trip has an undertone of a spirit of service, as students get a chance to serve and witness the inner workings of nonprofit organizations and religious communities. Collaborating side by side with community members, students not only have the ability to take classes in a breathtaking environment, but they also have the rare opportunity to directly apply their discussions in the classroom to real life.
Under the guidance of Communications Professor Gregory Daum and Religion Professor John Barton, nineteen Pepperdine students immersed themselves in the diversity of culture and religion during May of 2023. Junior Stephen McDaniel was one of the fortunate students who traveled to Uganda this past summer.
For his class, McDaniel recalled learning about a certain worldview one day and seeing its religious site the next day. “We visited a Christian martyrs museum, the Baha-i House of Faith, a Hindu temple, a Sikh gurdwara, a mosque, and a community of Ugandan Jews, along with a synagogue. It was really cool,” McDaniel said.
With most of the students believing in the Christian faith, many came to view their beliefs in a new light. McDaniel explained, “Every single day, we were immersed in different religions and challenged in our own religion. At least for me, it flipped my view of faith on its head completely and strengthened it in a lot of ways. I guarantee I’m not the only person who says that. It was very fruitful, from a faith perspective.”
When asked how he viewed his faith differently, McDaniel answered, “I view my faith less religiously now. I think there is something about the people that we met there.”
Throughout the program, McDaniel and his peers spent an abundance of their time with members of the Kibo Group, a faith-centered non-profit organization, aiming to empower and sustainably transform the communities of Uganda.
Pepperdine students would break off into groups, dedicating their time to various projects involving sanitation, hygiene, and health awareness. McDaniel accompanied Kibo Group members to instruct communities on health and ways of improving the quality of life.
During one trip, he and other students assisted with building a stove. He shared about the process, which mimicked the sustainability goals of the Kibo Group. “The stove was based on the supplies that the village had available to them. When we went to make the stove, we had to get the dirt, water, and straw. We had to take off our shoes and socks and stomp on them. My feet were super dirty,” McDaniel recalled. Harriet, a member of the Kibo Group who had accompanied the Pepperdine students, gave them a tub to wash their feet in.
What came next astonished McDaniel. “She said, ‘Put your foot in.’ So, I put my foot in and held out my hand for the soap. Then, she started to wash my feet.” Even after the trip, McDaniel continually reflected upon the service-filled heart Harriet had. “The more I’ve nodded on that this whole summer– it was an embodiment of what a Christian is supposed to be. That’s had a big impact on me.”
For McDaniel, the trip to Uganda with its beautiful scenery and delicious foods was an incredibly memorable traveling experience. “I like pineapples in the States, but pineapples from Uganda are the best thing I’ve ever tasted.” But more than the Nile River or the juicy pineapples, the people of Uganda forever impacted his idea of faith and a life of service. “Something I’ve tried to think about a lot and act upon was how I could metaphorically ‘wash the feet’ of the people around me.”
CARUSO SCHOOL OF LAW – SPRING BREAK IN UGANDA
Seaver students are just some of the Pepperdine members who have the opportunity to visit Uganda. Students at the Caruso School of Law have the chance to exercise their legal skills and passions in international human rights, as they tackle real cases, interview Ugandan defendants, and negotiate a plea bargain on their behalf.
Sherri Sturgeon, professor of law at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution and associate director for Student and Professional Engagement, had the fortunate opportunity to travel to Uganda last spring to plea bargain alongside U.S. attorneys and law students.
Before law school, Sturgeon lived and worked overseas. Throughout her experiences, she was continually met with the injustices in the world.
“I started to see the value behind having a law degree and behind understanding the systems in place and having authority to speak into those systems,” Sturgeon explained.
Aware of Pepperdine’s Uganda programs, Sturgeon applied for and worked toward a Master’s in Dispute Resolution at the Caruso School of Law. She planned for a trip to Uganda during her 2L year in 2020, only to have it canceled due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Fortunately, an opportunity arose in the spring of 2023 after she had graduated, making her a U.S. attorney on the trip rather than a U.S. law student.
On speaking about her recent trip, Sturgeon said, “It was very deeply impactful because I had not been licensed for very long at the time. It really was my first opportunity to act as an attorney and to represent a client. Very surreal, to say the least.”
Spending ten days in Uganda, Sturgeon and fellow students and attorneys went straight to work on plea bargaining cases. After studying the defendant’s files, Sturgeon and her team would meet with the defendants, preparing for their appearance before the judge. Discussing with both the prosecutors and the defendants, Sturgeon would negotiate the most optimal sentence for her client.
In certain cases, however, Sturgeon would come across defendants who were clearly not guilty of their accused crime, and thus, she would take on a more defensive attorney role to work towards the defendant’s release. In the case of a young teenage boy who was accused of stealing a bike, Sturgeon and her team saw insufficient evidence to claim that he was guilty.
“My team and I refused to let him admit guilt to something that was blatantly and evidently clear he was not guilty of. [The defendant] explained the situation, and it matched the evidence that was in front of us. There was no crime of which he should have been charged,” Sturgeon said.
Working hard towards the young boy’s innocence, Sturgeon and her team managed, in the end, to set their client free. “When we saw the judge sign off on the release, honestly, the hardship and the pain and the toil I went through to go to law school, to sit for the bar exam, not once but twice, and to become an attorney became completely worth it,” Sturgeon explained.
Being able to give back the young boy his liberty was a deeply impactful moment for Sturgeon. The service she poured into and received from the Ugandan justice system would forever impact her view on the role of an attorney. When reflecting upon the young boy’s release, Sturgeon stated, “I came away from that moment, saying if that’s all I ever got to do with my law degree, it was one hundred percent worth it.”
Pepperdine students, both from Seaver College and the graduate schools, travel to Uganda, excited to serve the people. However, many of them return forever changed by the service and hope instilled in the very people they intended to serve. The exchange between Pepperdine University and the communities of Uganda is a genuine one and a marker of service-filled companionship. As McDaniel puts it, “For the people who are thinking about going: I will go back before I die. No doubt in my mind.”