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From Uganda to College of Marin and Beyond

Student Commencement Speaker Shares His Journey

KENTFIELD, Calif., May 20, 2009—As a child, during the civil war, Waiswa Kosamu Nkwanga and his family slept in the bush, leaving their homes in the night to evade any raiding soldiers and rebels who might troll for supplies or boy soldiers. The family lived with the poverty that ensued, with the loss of relatives to AIDS that devastated nearby cities, and with ongoing civil unrest.

But as an adult, Nkwanga focuses on justice and community, the politics of human relationships, and ways to empower impoverished nations. As the College of Marin student commencement speaker, Nkwanga plans to talk on May 23 about diversity and our connectedness to each other.

“Waiswa’s story is extraordinary and he is an inspiration to all of us at College of Marin,” said Superintendent/President Frances L. White, Ph.D. “His accomplishments are a testament to how far one can go in life with persistence and hard work.”

Nkwanga has been accepted at UC Berkeley where he plans to attend starting fall 2009 to study international law and eventually work for the International Court of the United Nations.

“I was raised without knowing race,” he said. “I want to tell people it could have been different, but I’m here today. Those people who are in those conditions that I was in – don’t look at them as being less. Look at people as people. Understand we are one regardless of circumstances.”

Nkwanga is one of nine children. His parents were coffee plantation owners and his father served for a while as a leader in Kayunga, a community in central Uganda.

“We didn’t know we were poor,” Nkwanga said. “We felt we were privileged because our parents could afford to send us to school. By American standards it was tough growing up, but if I look back it was comfortable because that’s all we knew.”

After high school, Nkwanga studied tourism and wildlife management and worked at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center caring for animals. He spent two years working with chimpanzees at the Jane Goodall Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on efforts to stop illegal poaching and trading of wild animals.

“It was probably the greatest experience of my life,” he said, noting striking similarities between the behavior, culture, communication and politics of chimpanzees and humans. “Every group has a leader and they’re constantly competing for power. You saw how it played into how they respected each other.”

A passion for animal advocacy then led him to the underlying injustices and causes of poverty of humanity and Nkwanga felt called to make a difference in that realm.

“You can’t keep someone from eating an antelope when they’re starving,” he said. “I want my people to be able to live a decent life. I have to do something. I felt that what I needed to do is help empower people so they can get different treatment.”

Nkwanga moved to Florida to work as an intern in another animal center and then to San Rafael where he started College of Marin in spring 2006. College of Marin quickly became a home for him.

“There is this strong sense of community whereby everybody’s doing something to help another person and that’s what makes College of Marin special for me,” Nkwanga said.

Because he didn’t have family in the area, he often found himself arriving at school early and staying late. He has found support and community in serving in the student government and in the African-American student community.  He served as president of the Black Student Union and started the COM Students for Obama Club.

“Waiswa was very active in bringing students together; he jumped in head first,” said Walter Turner, Professor of Social Sciences and Contemporary African Affairs. “He wanted to ensure that other African-American students had an opportunity to play a role in changing and in assisting those in the community who needed help. His role with African-American students was geared toward building a community, toward helping students complete junior college and go on to do great things. It’s why you’re a professor – to meet these kinds of students. It’s a blessing to us to have them there.”

Nkwanga has supported himself primarily as an in-home care worker while sending money home so his brothers could attend university as well. He is particularly proud of his brothers and the work they are doing at home as a computer scientist and a human rights activist/journalist. For Nkwanga, the U.S. educational system was entirely different from the British system established in Uganda.

“After taking a few classes, it just opened up my mind – wow!” Nkwanga said. “For me it’s been like going to the jungle and exploring the diversity of animals there. It’s been a wonderful thing for me.”

Maybe you’ve got to experience something else in the world to really appreciate what you’ve got here, said Hank Fearnley, Political Science professor. “Waiswa really appreciated the opportunities he has here. He works hard and really puts forth the effort. It’s so encouraging to see that. It makes my job meaningful.”

COM’s 82nd Commencement will take place on Saturday, May 23, at 10 a.m. in the Harlan Center Quad Area, 835 College Ave., Kentfield, CA. Of the approximately 323 students receiving degrees and certificates this year, about 120 students will participate in the formal ceremony. The youngest graduate is a student from San Rafael who is 14 and the oldest is James Coyle of Mill Valley who is 69 years old. The total number of associate in arts degrees conferred is 183, the total number of associate in science degrees is 94, and the total number of certificates is 46.   

College of Marin is fully accredited by WASC and serves approximately 9000 credit and noncredit students. The college is committed by policy not to discriminate on the basis of, or the perception of, race, ethnic group identification, ancestry, color, religion, age, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, disability (mental or physical), marital status, medical condition (cancer, genetic characteristics, or pregnancy), and status as a veteran in any of its educational and employment programs and activities, or in its policies, practices and procedures.

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