Published November 23, 2020
When it comes to global projects, Mara Huber says relationships mean everything.
She should know. Huber, associate dean for undergraduate research and experiential learning, emphasizes collaboration, but no one at UB has been more proficient at putting together global experiential projects than she.
Huber’s connections in Tanzania led to numerous trips of UB students, faculty and staff to a remote area that shares her name. The pandemic ended those trips. But Tanzania study abroad projects live on remotely, with more students than before networking and Zooming their way to tangible contributions. Huber also helped shape a SUNY-wide summer program that provided international education experiences via online learning.
It wasn’t enough.
Online instruction and students’ desire to make a difference on a global scale meant the demand for connecting with global projects has never been stronger. Huber needed more for UB’s Experiential Learning Network’s (ELN) Project Portal. So she did her signature administrative magic. If networking and organizational models worked in Tanzania, why not scale up with another country?
That’s just what has happened. Using her international contacts with Joanita Ayenyo, a young Ugandan community leader she met through a mentor program, both established student opportunities for Ayenyo’s Support the Diabetics Organization (SUTEDO) initiative, a nongovernmental organization that tests rural Ugandans for diabetes and raises awareness of the disease. And just like that Ayenyo — whose daughter almost died from diabetes but has recovered to become her mother’s “heartbeat” — is the latest activist/partner fostering virtual cooperation with UB students eager to make a difference.
“When I reached out to Ayenyo about posting a project, she didn’t hesitate,” Huber says. “We got her SUTEDO project up right away.”
And just like that, UB landed another impassioned activist, hemispheres away, who is willing to help students connect with meaningful global work within the restrictions of the pandemic.
“I am hopeful more students will show interest,” says Ayenyo, who lives in the northern Ugandan city of Gulu. “We have gaps that are caused due to workload, lack of expertise in some areas and resources; a UB student fills in the gap. There is power in collaboration.”
Huber’s ability to establish personal connections again drove the initiative.
“We had much to connect around, such as our work,” says Huber. “But also as mothers … women. It’s amazing how social media allows you to feel so close to people — even though you’ve never met.”
Huber’s latest efforts had just begun. Once SUTEDO became active, Ayenyo mentioned her other love: helping musicians in her community build on their talent, finding an audience through social media and community events.
This led to the MIC GUM (‘Gift is a blessing”) talent development platform, where students can help with web development or help Ugandan musicians find U.S.-based mentors and resources.
Next, Huber and Ayenyo set up a Zoom call with other Ugandans.
“Recently we had that meeting. It was amazing,” says Huber. “There were over a dozen on the call — all young Ugandans doing interesting work, all trying to build capacity within their communities. Many were musicians. Others had eco-fashion businesses, public health initiatives and cybersecurity programs. All were ambitious, creative and eager to tap into the resources through our Project Portal.”
Since then, ELN has added several projects; others are in development:
Some of these projects are so new that students have yet to discover them, Huber says. But the SUTEDO project is already active.
The grandmother of 2020 UB graduate Raymond Uduba was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes when she came to the U.S. from Nigeria in 2004. Uduba, 22, found the perfect blend of preparing for his medical career and honoring his ancestors, all in a virtual world.
"SUTEDO is amazing because it strives to bring awareness to diabetes as a manageable illness, instead of a slow death sentence," he says, "which, according to Joanita Ayenyo, is how many people view diabetes in Uganda."
COVID-19 meant many health facilities aren’t hiring, and Uduba found shadowing and volunteer opportunities limited.
Uduba, living at home in Westchester County, says Huber was “fantastic” at responding to his email and connecting him with Ayenyo. He calls Ayenyo’s work “phenomenal” and celebrates the bond with someone whose family member suffered from diabetes. Uduba plans to help SUTEDO with a virtual diabetes event featuring a question-and-answer session that includes Ugandans.
Just like in Tanzania, the Ugandan experiential learning landscape expands, with Huber’s contacts leading the way.
“We can only achieve double or more when we build synergies,” says Ayenyo. “It is a win-win situation.”