Ryan “Benny” Benitez went to Uganda with the intention of teaching orphaned high schoolers to take the SAT so they could attend a university in the United States. He ended up learning so much more.
It was December, the middle of the Princeton hockey season. Browsing through internships available on the Princeton’s Office of International Programs website, Benny came across a job description that piqued his interest. Luckily for him and three special kids in Uganda, Benny applied and was offered the internship.
He spent eight weeks this summer in Nansana, Uganda, tutoring three high school graduates in their second language.
“It was hard enough for me to take the SAT in my native language,” Benny said. “Can you imagine trying to do the reading comprehension section in your second language, which is timed? They run out of time. But these kids are incredible. The fact they are even getting 1500-1600 is impressive. They are so smart, motivated and hardworking.”
In the classroom, Benny served primarily as the math tutor.
To start he needed to see what they already knew and go from there. He was shocked at how much they didn’t know.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks, that they had the worst education,” he said. “They weren’t just setting up problems wrong. They were never taught functions, or degrees of triangles, basic rules we learn in grade school. Just teaching them A2 + B2 = C2 leads to huge improvement.”
Schooling in Uganda is much different in the United States.
“Everyone is dying to go to school,” Benny said. “Unlike here where kids say ‘I have to go to school,’ there they say ‘I get to go to school.’”
Unfortunately many of the schools are corrupt and public education is not free. Benny explains that sometimes kids have to take a full year off because they don’t have enough money to attend. One of his students told him he made it through high school by cleaning cars after school and into the night, only getting a few hours of sleep so he could pay his school fees.
Another reason education may be delayed is because they have had to support their families, often who have had one or both parents die of AIDS, a disease so very prevalent in Uganda.
These aren’t the only problems. Malnutrition affects nearly everyone in Nansana.
“You always hear about malnutrition, but once you see it, it’s completely different,” Benny said. “It really hit home because it was people like me. They were 20, 21, 22 years old and fun, young, bright, hardworking. They were my friends. To see the poverty they go through on a daily basis, come to class smiling and then go home and read by candlelight or go home and don’t have enough to eat, or have to take care of five other kids at their aunt/uncle’s place, that hit me hard. There’s very real suffering.”
For some kids the lunch they would have at school would be their only meal of the day. And the school would always run out of food, as the younger children would get larger portions, leaving little for the older students and staff.
Benny describes a situation involving one of his students: “If I didn’t have very much on my plate, one of my students would take some off of their plate and push it onto my plate. And doing it with full knowledge that they would be hungry if they did this. That kind of giving really challenged me. It was hard for me to replicate. Like giving out of your poverty, instead of your wealth.”
“Their life is really hard. Between money, food, abuse. They recognize how hard life is but instead of being unhappy about it, like most Americans would be, they said that life is hard but I’m not going to drag anyone down with me, I’m going to be tough, I’m going to smile and work hard. Instead of being unhappy until their situation gets better, they choose to be joyful in their tough situation. To me this was a sign of toughness. I knew they were hungry and they weren’t complaining. It was an acting choice to be joyful despite imperfections.”
Getting an education can make all the difference for them. An education means they can work internationally and make money and have a different life. And it gives them a strong motivation to live a life that is better than the life they are living now.
“I have complete confidence in them to get educated here and go back,” he said. “Their lives would be changed, and they would enact great change. They would be great leaders, and great inspiration to a lot of orphans.”
Benny’s sense of pride in the process means he didn’t leave it all behind. He has continued to work with them though the application process, helping their teachers learn how to write a recommendations, something they don’t have experience with. The goal is for application for admission next fall.
“If there is one thing I really took out of this experience is how absolutely delightful they are in spite of this very significant suffering. They are they most joyful, generous, patient, loving, giving people I’ve ever met.”
by Kristy McNeil, Princeton OAC