Simon Mwima is a long way from his Ugandan home. But that doesn’t bother him, because he’s on a mission to get his PhD, return to his home country to help the impoverished and those suffering from HIV, and eventually teach the next generation of social workers.
And he’s doing all this thanks to a scholarship from the School of Social Work (SSW) and donor-funded aid from the SSW Student Support Fund.
He grew up in a small Ugandan village, the poorest of the poor. His village had no roads or electricity. The people drank from streams and lived under thatched roofs. His parents had little to no schooling. He was one of twelve children. Never enough food in his belly, never any shoes on his feet. No bedsheets. Once his mother disrobed for the night, he would cover himself with her clothes.
“I was in a very disadvantaged position economically, health-wise, and all that,” says Simon Mwima, now a PhD student at the School of Social Work. “My father was addicted to alcohol, and frequently became violent when he drank. I was raised in an environment where I saw my father battering my mother. The abject poverty and the intersectionality of gender-based violence and alcohol abuse made me to wonder if this is really what I was meant to be in.”
His older sister wondered the same thing. She dropped out of school as a teenager and married a much older man in a sex-for-money-and-security transaction. To escape the stifling confines of her home life.
But her escape didn’t last long. Before Mwima graduated from high school, his sister contracted HIV. Due to structural and institutional barriers, poverty, and extreme family and community stigma, she was unable to access the HIV care that she needed. Three years after she was diagnosed with HIV, she died. “She was rejected by society. No one wanted to touch her, no one wanted to even wash the dishes she touched,” Mwima recalls. With all the poverty we are going through, and now this. These painful scenarios strike me hard.”
Mwima’s mother sat him down. “Simon, the only way you can help yourself and help me and your brothers as well is to work hard in school. That is the only way.” She pointed out some of the people in their community who had some basic education and were doing well.
That conversation, along with his sister’s death, influenced his path. “I told myself I need to read hard right now or I will never go to university. So, I read. And I was among the best students in the country. I won a merit scholarship from the government to pursue my undergraduate studies at Makerere University, one of African’s flagship universities,” he says.
On to University
His sister’s death inspired him to study social work. “From there on, I made it my life’s mission to promote sexual equity and fight against the social and structural drivers related to HIV/STI vulnerabilities, including violence, poverty, stigma, and discrimination, especially among adolescents and young persons.”
He earned a BA and an MA from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda’s capital with a metro population of 6.7 million. A far cry from the tiny village that he padded around in barefoot. And an amazing leap for the young man who until very recently had never even dreamed of going to university. In between those two degrees, he worked for a few years for the Ministry of Health, working with people living with HIV or AIDS. “I was in a position to help them, especially adolescent boys and girls,” he says.
But Mwima found he needed more understanding of public health issues. “How do we document better health practices so they can be replicated by others? Those were skills I did not have. I needed to do further studies.”
He applied for and received another merit scholarship, this one to work on a master’s degree in public health. This time his studies took him to Lund University in Sweden. Armed with new skills and knowledge from his new degree, he returned to Uganda in 2016 to continue working for Uganda’s AIDS Control Program in the Ministry of Health while also practicing as a medical social worker at the clinic.
“I worked in a clinic which offers comprehensive HIV services for marginalized populations. At the clinic, my work was to document best practices that informs policy while supporting clients from a marginalized population to navigate complex processes and hurdles associated with identifying as members of sexual minorities and key populations in the context of restrictive laws in Uganda. These groups are alienated from social services and face social-cultural and structural barriers to accessing healthcare services, like what my sister faced,” he says. That included members of the LGBTQ+ community. In Uganda, homosexuality is illegal. “There are huge cultural and social beliefs in my country that deny people from getting sexual health education,” Mwima says.
In working for the AIDS Control Program at the Ministry of Health, Mwima led the development and adaptation of a Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) policy for HIV-negative young adults at MARPI clinic. The Ministry of Health used these practice experiences to scale up the intervention in other parts of the country. While Mwima practiced, he identified service gaps such as stigma and discrimination associated with PrEP uptake that motivated him to learn more. He wanted to advocate for national policy changes, and to do that, he needed additional skills. “If I had good research training, I would be in a position to talk with evidence,” he says. “I did not have strong research skills that I could use to generate information that could inform policy that I could use to defend or speak for the marginalized people like my sister who probably would not have gotten HIV if this situation were better.”
Falling in Love with Illinois
And so Mwima began to dream again.
“At this time, I was motivated by some of the well-known researchers at the School of Social Work such as Assistant Professor Moses Okumu, whom I had met and worked with while I served the key populations community at the Ministry of Health and at the clinic. That’s when I started to think I need a PhD,” he says.
“I never even thought I’d go to university,” says the first-generation college graduate. “It was never in my dream. Everything has been determination and resiliency. My poor illiterate mom can’t even believe I’m in the US doing a PhD.”
In researching programs, he fell in love with the University of Illinois’ School of Social Work.
“From its mission to the cause of the program to the faculty to the programs, full PhD funding for international students like me, I instantly loved the School,” he says. “The professors were doing amazing research work. I phoned very many good professors there. And they immediately replied! They are so welcoming! These are all signs that Illinois is the place for me to be.” Among those he contacted were Chi-Fang Wu, director of the PhD program, and Assistant Professor Rachel Garthe, who now serves as his advisor.
“I got motivated to submit my application,” he continues. “I prayed that I get into this program. Everything was inside my heart, my prayer, to get into UIUC. And guess what? A miracle happened to me. Miracles have happened to me.” On the chilly evening he received his acceptance email, he was ecstatic. “I ran mad with joy, I cried!” he says, still in amazement.
After being accepted into the PhD program, Mwima found himself in dire straits. “I was expected to pay for all expenses associated with moving to a new country, including visa-related costs, flight, clothing, upkeep, and housing related costs, including housing application fees, monthly rent, and at least one full month of security deposit,” he says. “Add to this that I had worked less in Uganda as a result of the pandemic social control measures that came into force, and that I contracted COVID-19, which necessitated costly private care in Uganda. I came very close to canceling my PhD offer because the associated costs became too much for me to manage.”
But, he says, “as a resilient black African man, my only strength at the time was the desire to avoid missing out on the opportunity to pursue a doctorate at the University of Illinois’ highly esteemed School of Social Work. So, I arrived in the USA on August 10, 2021, with no money left over to purchase food and for my personal upkeep in the USA. My resiliency skills came in handy on a daily basis! I battled and attended my classes.”
None of this would be happening, he adds, were it not for the scholarship he received through the School and through emergency funding available to students like him through the SSW Student Support Fund. That fund, made possible through the generous donations of Susan and Michael Haney, along with the contributions of many of the School’s faculty and staff, provides critical support for students like Mwima that have unforeseen needs. Because of the generosity of others, a substantial financial burden has been lifted from Mwima’s shoulders, and he is able to focus on his education and his mission.
“I am very grateful to the donors. They do not know how much they have impacted the life of one little village boy called Simon Mwima. The only thing I can promise them is I am going to do the due diligence to uphold the value of social work, and that is ensuring that our community is a just society. My heart and my works are going to do exactly what they want me to do, and that is to make this world a fair place for all of us to stay.”
On a Mission
Adjusting to life in the US—he just started his program this fall—has not been terribly difficult, though he does miss matooke, a plantain dish that is mashed, steamed, and can be served with or without meat. It normally is prepared with tomatoes, plantains, bell peppers, onions, and spices, and is the national dish of Uganda.
“But I’m not missing it that much, because I am on a mission. I told myself not to miss anything, because I am a man on a mission,” Mwima declares, laughing.
That mission, of course, is to earn his PhD and return to Uganda with new skills, knowledge, and the practical tools that he needs to conduct independent research to better serve those in need.
“I am particularly interested in developing culturally informed models that inform how adverse childhood experiences intersects with other multidimensional aspects of human life, such as poverty, gender, ethnicity, locality, and stigma,” he says. “My long-term professional goal is to be a faculty member teaching and conducting cutting-edge research in Uganda, sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond.”
For now, he continues on the path that he took up after his sister died.
“I have a mission to the people with HIV in my country,” he says. “My heart is with the young girls who are like my sister who died, my heart is with the young boys like me who are going through severe poverty. I see a lot of potential in them. As I do my PhD, my heart is with these people.”
Learn more about the SSW Student Support Fund, which is earmarked for emergency cases such as Simon Mwima’s.