UCU social work leader strives to forge USA collaborations

By Patty Huston-Holm
Kasule Kibirige believes in Jesus.

A guy he met on November 15, 2023, believes in UFOs (Unidentified Foreign Objects) and Sasquatch, also known as “Big Foot.” 

After a quick handshake, the man, donned in a baseball cap embroidered with the Sasquatch name, asserted that USA government data verifies the existence of alien life (i.e., UFOs) and many videos from average people authenticate that a large hairy creature is walking his big feet around North American forests. Kasule listened without prejudice during the five minutes that the man in the hat espoused his views that were new to Kasule and what some more familiar consider fictitious and as the sun was setting outside the Cedarville, Ohio, Sunset Inn and Suites.  

That’s what social workers, especially those who are Christian, do. 

“Social work has a value base similar to Christian faith,” said Kasule, head of undergraduate studies, School of Social Sciences, Uganda Christian University (UCU), since 2016. “Social work is a program of study that includes accepting others without judging them.”

The profession is much more, of course. The Webster dictionary defines social work as a field with “activities or methods concretely concerned with providing social services and especially with the investigation,  treatment and material aid of the economically, physically, mentally or socially disadvantaged.” 

The brief, unexpected encounter with the Sasquatch-UFO follower – who also might have shared his religious beliefs had he remained longer – provided an example of implementing social work skills outside the confines of a dictionary or textbook, according to Kasule, who learned of these topics for the first time in his three-week, November trip to the USA.  It was his first visit to Ohio and second trip to the United States. While waiting to have dinner with faculty at Cedarville University, he shared other illustrations, including his early recognition of how listening and observing make a difference in the field of social work. 

“Most students come to universities directly from high school,” Kasule said. “I didn’t.”

Without sufficient funds, or academic marks to

Kasule Kibirige with the Rt. Rev. Deon John, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri at St. John’s Episcopal Church, St. Louis, Mo.
Kasule Kibirige with the Rt. Rev. Deon John, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri at St. John’s Episcopal Church, St. Louis, Mo.

garner a government scholarship grant, Kasule first enrolled in vocational training. Using his tertiary knowledge and skill, he was employed as a welder in a small-scale steel fabrication factory that made machines like the ones used in the agro-processing industry. He later saw social workers in action when working for a child-focused non-profit organization in Kampala,  Uganda.  

“Choosing social work was largely inspired by that life-changing opportunity of  working with a non-governmental organization that helped disadvantaged, urban out-of-school children,” Kasule said. 

From 2001 to 2007, Kasule received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from the University of Botswana in Africa. Since 2008, he’s been a social work faculty member at UCU and participated in numerous community engagements, both integrated in fieldwork supervision of students’ practicums and community service, researching to enhance teaching and leading social work curriculum at UCU.  In addition to these roles, he has collaborated with Lisa Tokpa of UCU’s Uganda Studies Program (USP), a semester-long course of study for American university students. The goal in collaborating is to create mutual benefit among their two programs at the university, including research, co-teaching, social work supervisor trainings, and cross-cultural student groups.

“My major interest is to contribute to improving the quality of social work educational experiences for both students and faculty,” Kasule said. “I continuously seek to engage with colleagues who share this passion through collaborations – in international field education, co-teaching and learning, and applied research.”

The main objective of Kasule’s November visit to the United States was expanded collaboration. He spoke and listened during the North American Association of Christians in Social Work Convention 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pa.; engaged with educators and students at two USA universities that have been involved with the USP in the two decades of the program’s existence; and spoke with the Rt. Rev. Deon Johnson, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri at St. John’s Episcopal Church, St. Louis, Mo. In the state of Pennsylvania, he visited Grove City College. In Ohio, he spent two days at Cedarville University. In Missouri, he met with social work faculty at St. Louis University. 

Since 2004, students from more than 100 American Christian universities, as well as those from a smaller number of secular universities have participated in the UCU-USP four-month curriculum that is largely focused on social work. Most USP-sending universities are associated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which represents more than 180 higher education institutions.  

“My key initiatives are local and international,” Kasule said. “Locally, UCU social work and USP social work emphasis is through cross-cultural learning groups. Internationally, there is the exchange with universities outside Uganda.”

Kasule Kibirige in Cedarville, Ohio
Kasule Kibirige in Cedarville, Ohio

Kasule has seen first-hand the academic and cultural value for American students spending a semester of study at UCU, as well as a more recent collaboration that has UCU students studying at Hanze University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. He would like to see more United States higher education opportunities for Ugandan students and faculty.

“Cross cultural conversations have infinite value,” said Kasule, who has two children, ages 4 and 7, with his wife, Grace, a pediatrician currently engaged in clinical research. “We have our own perceptions about Christianity and social problems in Uganda. You have yours.” 

Besides its spiritual redemption and religious values for the majority of Ugandans, Christian virtues also are an important reference for promising hope; and a practical framework when integrated into curriculum.

While partnership benefits are readily acknowledged, money is a barrier for an equal exchange because Ugandans have fewer resources than Americans. But it’s an obstacle that can be overcome.

“There is the possibility of grants, but we don’t expect our partners to throw money at a problem,” Kasule said. “Rather, we seek mutually-beneficial collaboration.” He pointed to the internet with possibilities for co-teaching and co-research, especially since all UCU post-graduate programs are now online. 

David Hodge, distinguished professor, School of Social Work, Arizona State University, is among USA social work partners who have come to UCU. In 2021, Dr. Hodge and Kasule co-published a paper addressing academic research inequalities between Sub-Saharan faculty and their counterparts in the West, and planned more related to how spirituality can be used in assessment until Covid drove Hodge home earlier than planned. As 2023 comes to a close, this later project is being revived.

“Even for non-believers, Christian principles and similar intervention strategies can be applied,” said Kasule, reflecting on some work he has embarked on with partners fighting against child sacrifice, in Uganda.  According to census data, 82 percent of Ugandans are Christian. In the USA, 63 percent identify as believers in Jesus Christ. 

Kasule sees Christian faith playing an integral part for worker efforts to rebuilding community resilience, prevention and mitigation of social struggles, such as domestic violence, mental illness and children not in school. Loneliness issues for people of all ages also is a current focus both in Uganda and the United States, he said.

Enabling university faculty and students to experience multiple cultures is key, according to Kasule.  Opportunities for faculty to engage in more practice-academics (pra-academics) and collaborative projects would not only improve teaching and learning effectiveness but also will certainly improve service users’ overall  outcomes. 

“We need to engage agencies as partners, teachers and students as learners,” he said. “We learn so much from each other to help others.”