Nothing For Granted: From Uganda to New York City

Too-rom with her UCU classroom group visiting a local Ugandan newspaper. 

Too-rom with her UCU classroom group visiting a local Ugandan newspaper. 

Educational opportunities are rare and limited for women in Uganda. But, for one lucky young woman, the opportunity of a lifetime was one which she did not pass up.

From Kampala, the capital of Uganda, Gertrude Too-rom, the top of her class at Uganda Christian University, traveled to The Big Apple as part of the New York City Semester in Journalism (NYCJ) program with The King’s College for the Spring 2017 semester.

“I didn't know what reaction to expect, coming to New York, if they were going to embrace me or shun me,” said Too-rom, 22, with a slight accent. “Just another black person coming in. I expected to be seen as a very weird creature, coming from Africa.”

A multifaceted, determined and entrepreneurial student, Too-rom is fluent in four languages and is a small business owner. Now, in New York, she is balancing an internship at WORLD Magazine while studying and working.

“For me to come to this whole new world was something only God could do,” Too-rom said.

Too-rom’s journey to New York began in 2015, when The King’s College partnered with the the journalism department at Uganda Christian University (UCU).

“So I wrote to ... Dr. Monica Chibata [head of Mass Communication at UCU] asking if they had a student to recommend for NYCJ,” said Paul Glader, Associate Professor of Journalism, Director of the John McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute and the Director of the NYC semester in Journalism. “She nominated Too-rom.”

Too-rom, the oldest of five, grew up in a sheltered but loving home in Uganda. Too-rom’s parents own a cardigan company which produces clothing for school children in Africa.

“It’s not a flourishing business,” Too-rom said. “My father worried about the finances to get me here.”

Her father believed there was no future for her in journalism, especially as a woman.

“[My father] didn’t want me to go into journalism or radio,” Too-rom said. “He went to every length. When I finally decided I wanted to do journalism,  he made me go see a psychiatrist and academic advisors. Coming from a country that doesn’t take girl’s education seriously, my dad just strived for the best.”

Too-Room, far right, with her friends working as ushers at a traditional Ugandan wedding. 

Too-Room, far right, with her friends working as ushers at a traditional Ugandan wedding. 

In Uganda, girls are often denied the same educational experiences and opportunities as boys.  According to the United Nations, Uganda holds the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the Sub-Saharan Africa region with nearly one in four girls becoming pregnant before the age of 18.

“My father sheltered me, he didn't want me getting pregnant,” Too-rom said. “He sought to send me to the best schools [that we could afford].”

While Too-rom admits she failed many of her classes in high-school, college was a new chapter. Now, she is one semester away from graduating top-of-her-class with a communications degree from UCU.

Upon arrival in New York, Too-rom admits she had a few culture shocks.

“I remember the first night, one of the biggest problems I had was with the food,” said Too-rom, laughing. “All the pizza! Pizza is a luxury in Uganda. My family was surprised I was eating pizza!”

Too-rom with her King's roommates at Times Square. 

Too-rom with her King's roommates at Times Square. 

In the first weeks, Too-rom accepted an internship with WORLD Magazine under staff journalist Emily Belz.

“She just threw me right into the fire the first week,” Too-rom said. She thrived in the fast-paced, high-stakes environment.

Now, at the end of her New York experience, Too-rom is ensuring she makes the most out of her opportunity. She considers her time in New York as a major step towards her future.

“If you went to school in New York, you can get a job anywhere,” Too-rom said.

Too-rom’s experience in New York hasn't been all about education. She visited tourist attractions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art as well as the fast-food chain Diary Queen.

“I wanted to go [to Dairy Queen] so bad,” said Too-rom with a laugh.

But, she admits that she does miss things about home. A few years ago, Too-rom began her own small business, Trude’s Peanut Butter.

“When I finished high-school, I had nothing to do,” Too-rom said. “So I made my first sample, took it to the school and it was out within the first week. That’s how it got started.”

Her entrepreneurial spirit continues to propel her career goals.

“Journalism is hard in Uganda,” Too-rom said. “In the U.S. you are free to speak, and you can have all types of media, but there are things you can say against the government in Uganda that will get you killed or arrested. And I want a talk show that speaks to girls from 13 and up. I want to grow ladies who know their worth. They can achieve New York. They can be anything they wish to be.”

She added that it is through the education of young women that the men of Uganda will learn respect and allow for increased educational opportunities for both genders. She desires to be a catalyst for change in her country. 

Too-rom also expressed interest in becoming a professor and in public relations and marketing.

“I do love New York,” Too-rom said. “But I have so much I can’t wait to take back now. If I stay here longer, I’ll forget it and all the love I have to share it.”

Too-rom is grateful for her opportunity with King’s and experiences in the Big Apple.

“New York City … and King’s have given me another perspective on life,” Too-rom said. “I see my own country now with the lens of what America is like.”

This perspective can only help her as she returns to her native country. She has a fresh vision and desire to help young women in Uganda achieve their dreams. Ultimately, she may change an entire nation.

“I believe she will be a leader in Uganda in the future,” Glader said. “Gertrude has been a blessing here from day one.”

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