Zig Ziglar, an American author once said, “It’s the attitude, not your aptitude that determines your altitude.” This quote best describes Dr Gooreka Okahaabwa Bagabe, the coordinator of UCU Counselling Programmes.
Inspired by her former research supervisor’s love and passion for the field of psychology, Okahaabwa made a decision that she too wanted to get a PhD in the field.
“UCU was starting a new Master’s programme in Counselling Psychology, and I just had a Master’s degree yet I was expected to teach on the course,” Okahaabwa recalls.
Armed with her newfound passion for a PhD in the field, between 2004 and 2006 she set off on a journey to find a suitable university at which to pursue a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Her interest was to study at a university outside Africa where she hoped she would get the right knowledge that she needed.
“The US is better advanced in the field of psychology so I wanted to go join one of the universities,” she explains.
Okahaabwa began by sending her application to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. However, the university did not give funding to international students. This meant she would have to fend for herself in terms of tuition, housing and upkeep which did not sit well with her. This bump in the road did not discourage her as she continued to search for a suitable university.
She finally narrowed it down to three universities all in the US: Northeastern University in Florida, the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and Regent University. “It was difficult to raise money to travel for the interviews. I was only able to go because Regent University, one of those I had applied to offered $500 for the ticket and Prof. Stephen Noll, the then vice-chancellor wrote me a letter of recommendation to get a visa,” she explains.
Okahaabwa spoke to one of the university officials at Regent University, who offered to look into the idea of a scholarship for her. This gave her hope and she kept checking her email for a response.
“My father had given me Shs400,000 from his pension, but this was not enough even with my salary combined. Plus I had to pay for my upkeep and accommodation while staying in the US,” she explained.
Soon enough, a response came through and it was more than she could have ever imagined. Okahaabwa discovered that she had been given the Regent President’s Award which catered for her tuition for all of the five years of her course.
“I could not believe it. This was full tuition for all my five years. I was excited and I walked over to Prof. Noll to tell him what had happened. He was very surprised but happy for me,” she narrates.
With the tuition catered for, all she had left to raise was her upkeep and accommodation which her salary at UCU would cater for. This is because she would still be paid her salary while she studied due to the UCU award she had received.
“For the award at UCU, I signed a binding agreement in which I would have to continue working with the university for five years after I returned,” she explains. Once all the hardest hurdles were passed, Okahaabwa embarked on her PhD starting from 2008 till 2013. Her topic for the research was “Adaptation and Coping among East African Immigrants in America.”
“I was concerned with how specifically the children adapt to moving abruptly and settling in a new place. This is because they have to change their way of thinking and acting to suit the new environment they are in. However, the parents I approached did not respond to my request for their children’s participation in the research. So I tweaked the study a bit and asked the parents to be the participants,” she explained.
In her findings, Okahaabwa discovered that people who go abroad and are involved in faith and social organisations like the Nkobazambogo seemed to adapt better to the environment. Okahaabwa noted further that it helps if people, who plan to leave the country, are sensitized about the likely problems they will face, and how they can deal with them.
“Sometimes there are conflicts between parents, who have been raised in Uganda and have learnt the Ugandan way of life and their children who have barely had the time to learn the culture before they are whisked away to another country with different customs. The two groups fail to get along because of the different ideologies that the different countries have instilled in them,” she explained.
Okahaabwa explains that her love for psychology stems from her childhood as a shy child which made her quite reserved. As a result, she was always eager to learn why those around her behaved in certain ways.
Okahaabwa joined UCU in 2004 as a part-time lecturer and was one of the founding members of the Counselling Department. She was originally teaching in an international school but felt that she could do more with herself.
“I wrote to the then Vice Chancellor, Prof. Stephen Noll, and asked about the state of counselling at the university but I did not get a response. Finally, I came and talked to Dr Senyonyi who informed me that they did not have a Department of Counselling but were in the process of hiring someone from Canada to help start it,” she explained.
Eventually, Okahaabwa came to the university and requested for a part-time lecturing job in the counselling programme which was under the Faculty of Education. In the same year (2004), Rev Arnie Toews, the counsellor from Canada came to the university and together with Okahaabwa, they worked to start the counselling services at the university which is now The Ruth Nkoyoyo Wellness Centre.
“We also started the academic counselling programmes under the Faculty of Social Sciences,” she said.
The 48-year-old is the daughter of John W Kaakaabaale, a retired secondary school teacher and Keren Kaakaabaale, a retired nurse currently working as a businesswoman in Kabale District.
“My parents were very supportive even when I wanted to study a PhD but did not have the money to facilitate me. They still helped me whenever they could,” she said.
She is married to Richard Bagabe Bamanya and the two have one child, Esther Bagabe.
For her primary, Okahaabwa attended Kabale Preparatory School in Kabale. She studied at Gayaza High School for both O and A-level education before joining Makerere University where she did a Bachelor’s in Botany, Zoology and Psychology.
“I later dropped Botany and focused on Zoology and Psychology. Zoology and Psychology together are the foundation of Clinical Psychology. Zoology is the study of animals and human beings in terms of their physical nature while Psychology looks at behaviour and how human beings interpret certain things,” Okahaabwa explained, when I talked to her about her academic journey.
She then embarked on a Masters in Clinical Psychology from Makerere University in 1998.
Advice to community
Okahaabwa urges aspiring academicians not to start a PhD unless they are very ready for it.
“A PhD can be very draining and this may result in people putting it aside for a while,” she explained.