Power Of Education Crossing Continents, Improving Lives

Rebecca Wokibula, clad in cap and gown, was ready for her master’s graduation ceremony. She was one among swarms of others posing in front of the Campanile, the Memorial Union and Lake LaVerne, their proud parents snapping pictures—except for one difference. For Wokibula, a native of Uganda, Graduation Day was only the second time she had set foot on the Iowa State campus.

Wokibula’s is a story of resilience, determination and family. But most of all, it’s a story of one woman’s journey to achieve her dreams and, in the process, bring life-altering innovations to small farmers in her home country.

Wokibula completed her degree through Iowa State’s Master of Science in Agronomy distance education program, which grants students wide latitude to finish coursework online at their own pace without having to sacrifice professional and family commitments.

Wokibula, the first student from beyond North America to complete the program, didn’t take the traditional route to her degree.

“It’s a dream come true,” Wokibula said during an interview in Agronomy Hall just hours before her graduation ceremony in May. “It’s something worth celebrating, and I’m very proud.”

An interest in agriculture

Orphaned as a young girl, Wokibula was raised by her siblings who were only a few years older. She later enrolled at Makerere University in Uganda where she studied land management and soil science.

Markere University partners with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods to administer a service learning program that aims to bring together undergraduates from both schools to improve lives in Uganda through development projects.

Wokibula was among the first students to participate in the service learning program, and it served as her introduction to Iowa State University. She didn’t know it at the time, but her connection to Iowa State was just beginning.

A touch of grace, a new family

Chuck and Margo Wood, of St. George, Utah, met Wokibula in 2006 while the Woods accompanied a Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods delegation to Africa. The Woods were seated next to Wokibula during a banquet—a chance encounter that would change all their lives. “She was such a personable and loving person,” Margo Wood recalls. “She was so kind to us, and there was an immediate connection.”

Chuck Wood, who grew up in Spencer and graduated from Iowa State in 1963 with a degree in animal science, agreed.

“She impressed us immediately—her intelligence, her grace. We knew we would have to stay in contact with her,” he says.

After their initial meeting, Chuck and Margo kept tabs on Wokibula via email and over the phone. They even visited her in Uganda on a few occasions. When Wokibula told the Woods in 2007 that she was considering getting a master’s degree from Iowa State, she got their full support.

“We made her a deal,” Chuck says. “We would underwrite a major portion of the cost if she promised to use the education she received to help small farmers in Uganda.”

And that’s just what happened. She entered the Master of Science in Agronomy program in 2008. Chuck and Margo covered half the cost of Wokibula’s education, while the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods paid for much of the rest. Wokibula also earned the Virgil K. Webster Scholarship, a $1,000 award that covered two courses in fall 2008.

Blending life and academics

During the five years it took her to complete the program, Wokibula got married, gave birth to her daughter Emily and took on a full-time job working with Ugandan farmers to improve their operations. One of the program’s greatest advantages is that it’s designed to move at the speed of the student, says Ken Moore, an Iowa State University Distinguished Professor of Agronomy and director of the master’s program.

The 40-credit program can be completed in two years, but most students take only a class or two per semester and finish their degree in three to five years, Moore says. Wokibula distinguished herself as a driven student, he says.

“There were times she was the only student who showed up for online discussion, and it was something like four o’clock in the morning in Uganda,” Moore says. “That speaks volumes about her character and her dedication to learning.”

Most of the coursework for the master’s program is carried out online, and only an orientation and a creative component seminar require students to travel to Ames. The seminar requirement brought Wokibula to campus for the first time in 2011. At the same time, she took on an internship with the center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods during which she visited Iowa farms and took part in World Food Prize events in Des Moines.

Mark Westgate, director of the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods and Wokibula’s major professor, applauded her dedication to Ugandan agriculture.

“She has a really nice blend of practical approaches to real farm issues and a need to help farmers in Uganda improve,” Westgate says. “She’s working every day to improve the situation on the farm, and she’s committed her life to doing so.”

Wokibula credits the faculty at Iowa State for working around the complications that would pop up because she was so far away. That meant dealing with the occasionally unreliable communications technology available in Uganda.

“I’d never taken a class online before, but the faculty and staff walked me through it and made sure I was up to speed,” she says. “I’m so grateful for the understanding that they showed me and the help they gave me.”

Research that makes a difference

To complete her master’s degree, Wokibula honored the agreement she made with Chuck and Margo Wood to use her educa­tion to help farmers in her home country. Her research focused on studying how a legume called lablab interacts with corn to increase yields. By growing lablab in the same field and meeting certain conditions that she tested, Wokibula found that soil fertility improves and corn yields can jump as much as 40 percent—a quantum leap that could greatly improve incomes and quality of life for Ugandan farmers.

“It’s my hope that farmers in Uganda will utilize what I’ve learned and put my research to use,” she says.

Wokibula works with Kyklou, a nonprofit group striving to enhance living conditions in eastern Africa by improving agricultural infrastructure, land manage­ment practices and market access. She hopes to convince farmers to adopt the practices illuminated by her research.

Graduation Day

On May 10, 2013, five years after beginning the master’s program and nearly two years since she last set foot in Ames, Wokibula put on her cap and gown and received her degree during a ceremony on campus.

And once again, it was Chuck and Margo who made the trip possible. They paid for Wokibula—along with her husband Paul and young daughter— to travel to campus so she could attend the commencement ceremony.

“It has brought us great joy, pleasure and fulfillment to see Becky grow and achieve her goals,” Chuck says. “We developed a personal relationship with her and consider her a member of our family.”

And the feeling is mutual. As Wokibula went through the pomp of graduation day, Emily, her two-year-old daughter, zipped between Chuck and Margo with ease before zipping back to her mother or Paul. They took a few minutes to pose together for photographs in the Agronomy Hall courtyard, enacting the same graduation day ritual that was playing out among scores of other families across campus.