Being part of a global community that stands up for humanity isn’t everyone’s mission, but for Courtney Skiera, PhD in Psychology student, it’s her destiny. Wanting to spend some time giving back to the world before she got married, Courtney went to East Africa’s Uganda for three months and fell in love with the country.
Soon after returning to the United States to get married, she and her husband moved to Sydney, Australia, so he could earn his advanced degree at a local university. While “down under,” Courtney enrolled at Walden University. The online university’s dedication to social change was the determining factor for her choosing to earn her doctorate. In addition, it gave Courtney the flexibility to travel back to Uganda, where she wanted to volunteer for a year before having children. Now, she and her husband call Uganda home.
“My heart is in humanitarian efforts, and Uganda is very fertile ground for helping other people. You can’t not do that here,” she says. “With the second-highest fertility rate in the world, the country has an average age of 15. And when you consider the AIDS epidemic and civil war in some areas, an entire generation of parents is wiped out, leaving a lot of vulnerable children.”
Living in Kampala, Uganda, Courtney is the country director for Kwagala Project, an organization dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating vulnerable Ugandan and international women and girls from sex trafficking and exploitation. By providing holistic care to its beneficiaries, including providing school fees for the children and teenagers as well as vocational training and microloans for the adults, the goal of the organization is to empower these women and children to become reintegrated within their communities and for them to become agents of positive social change.
“We encourage community service, and the girls in our program frequently conduct hospital visits to HIV/AIDS facilities, are involved in peer-education programs, and even help me teach teenagers living in rural villages about sexuality, health, and sanitation,” adds Courtney.
Walden’s mission of positive social change is a guiding light for the Ph.D. student, who loves academia but doesn’t want to teach. “How can you use this knowledge to effect positive social change? It makes you think and really confront the concept that everything you learn and what’s already around you can help in some way.” Now she says she is more conscious of how she can use her doctoral education in very practical ways.
For example, a neighbor in her apartment complex, whom she met during her second visit to Uganda, used to gather the kids from a nearby slum and teach them English under a mango tree. Seeing the need and trying to meet it, she and her husband founded and now run a.k.a. HOPE, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping a community of children refugees—all of whom have lost one or both parents—by providing education, at least one meal a day, and clean water. The goal is to gain funding to build a boarding school for these 80 children, who are now in grades 1–5. In addition, a.k.a. HOPE provides health and literacy classes for the guardians of orphans and would like to add vocational training for them in the future.
“Helping refugee populations in slums and rescuing women from sex trafficking are my every day work,” says Courtney, who thinks educating others about social change is just as important as effecting change. “I don’t think social change is just about helping a single population; it’s spreading the word, getting more people on board who are willing to take direct action. If education was given to me, what can I do to give back in return?”