International relationships - long version

James Luyirika-Sewagudde Jr. looks at each student’s individual needs

James Luyirika-Sewagudde Jr. leaned back on his office chair with his arms stretched behind his head and stared thoughtfully at the photo on his wall as if to say, “I’ve learned to be wise and this photo will tell you why.”

When students stop by Luyirika-Sewagudde’s international student advising office they can’t help but notice the many collectibles that sit on shelves and walls, perhaps wondering what stories lie behind them. On a ceramic tile on the window there is a cartoon of a man laying back comfortably, as if to mimic Luyirika-Sewagudde, and reads “El trabajo es sagrado no lo toques.” He won’t just tell you what it means; he will ask you to figure it out, and when you do he will shake your hand.

Luyirika-Sewagudde is a humorous man but a man with a powerful interpretation of the world. The photo he continued to study thoroughly stood for the experience that made him into that man, for the story that spoke to him and would also speak to others.

While growing up in Uganda, his home country, Luyirika-Sewagudde used to look on the map at South Africa and at that time it seemed so far away from him. During that period apartheid divided South Africa and as Luyirika-Sewagudde grew, so did his awareness of and interest in the division and inequality between black people and white people there. When he finally made the journey down to South Africa, he witnessed with his own eyes that place to which he dedicated himself to understand.

“I went to South Africa quite confident about my knowledge, but I found that I didn’t know anything at all,” Luyirika-Sewagudde said. He had a strong grasp of the political situation in South Africa at the academic level, but he hadn’t realized that it didn’t even fulfill half the experience. “It’s like when you read about the Golden Gate Bridge, but it’s not until you walk across the bridge that you see how long it is.”

On this day, he launched his back off his chair in enthusiasm, his eyes wandering back to the photo, and this time he pointed at it. In the picture, a thin black man sits with his legs against a cube-shaped, poorly built structure, almost colorless, under a piercing sun that dried up the nothingness around it.

“That’s the result of apartheid,” Luyirika-Sewagudde said.

It was a real picture of a real person in a real harsh world. This man lived in a township that was an underdeveloped residential area for blacks in South Africa during apartheid. For some people townships were nothing more than a tourist attraction, but for Luyirika-Sewagudde it was the experience that gave birth to the meaning of human interaction.

He calls the people of the townships the Mandela people. They were the generation that suffered from apartheid, who were tortured and jailed. They were the ones who lived, died and survived by Nelson Mandela’s motto while he himself stuck by it before, during and after his 20 years in captivity.

A woman they named Mama from the township that Luyirika-Sewagudde visited boggled his mind with her generosity and hospitality to the people attending a community event. She hugged everyone, one at a time, and with only so much to offer herself she still warmly invited all to drink from her water.

“That was one of the only times that I found out I’m alive because there wasn’t any emotion that I didn’t experience,” Luyirika-Sewagudde said.

It wasn’t until the ‘60s rolled around that Luyirika-Sewagudde left Uganda to come to the U.S. He attended Gustavus Adolphos College in Saint Peter, Minn., where he was initially studying to become a teacher. He later changed his focus of study to psychology and biology. During the ‘70s he moved to Chico to earn his master’s degree in education and psychology.

After Luyirika-Sewagudde completed his studies he worked as an assistant in the counseling and advising office at Chico State. When the international student advising position opened up he was interested and took the job. Today he continues to work with students from all over the world.

Freshman Diyana Zainal, an international student from Malaysia, has been to visit Luyirika-Sewagudde a couple of times in the year that she has been in Chico, mostly to get help with travel documents and the like. But that wasn’t the first time she met him. Her parents are alumni of Chico State and when they attended school almost 30 years ago, Luyirika-Sewagudde was their international adviser. Zainal’s parents took her on a family vacation 10 years ago, making their way to Chico, and she remembers meeting him for the first time and taking group pictures with him.

“He is very warm-hearted, joyful, young at heart definitely,” Zainal said. “He’s exactly the same now as when I met him 10 years ago.”

On a day-to-day basis students will come into the office full of souvenirs from around the world and in that approximately 10-feet-by-16-feet space a puzzle of the world will come together piece by piece, adding more to the picture each time. A simple human interaction will leave at least one person with a little more culture or wisdom.

Sometimes students who pass by the office will go to vent about rough situations with roommates, drunken driving, failing, getting As, receiving awards, pregnancies or whatever issue about which they need a safe place to talk. Sometimes students drop by just to say hello. Talking to these students over the years has allowed Luyirika-Sewagudde to see how they change. Any one of those students could come in one day and say, “James, I’m getting my master’s tomorrow.” It’s the growth process that he likes to see take place within these international and exchange students after having helped them make choices.

During his seven years in Chico, international student Nabil Gacimi, from Morocco, has been to visit Luyirika-Sewagudde several times. Sometimes it was just to pass the time talking about each others’ families and other times it was to discuss more serious matters. They first met because Gacimi had gotten himself into a situation when he lost his I-20, the document that international students need to be eligible to enter the country. Even though Gacimi is now a U.S. resident, his relationship with Luyirika-Sewagudde has developed.

“He always has a story to say and somehow you can relate to that story and it makes you feel better about yourself,” Gacimi said.

When Gacimi first came to Chico he felt the distance away from home grow on him and he used to talk to Luyirika-Sewagudde about it. He knew that he understood how it felt since he, too, was far away from his own home and has been a part of the Chico community for a long time. Relating to one another’s experiences helped Gacimi adapt better to a then-unfamiliar community and culture.

“He’s like a big brother,” Gacimi said. “You won’t have a problem asking him to go for coffee.”

From one culture to another, people have different needs, especially when they are in a world that is foreign to them. Some people have lived in places where gender issues have been a problem and others have lived in countries where their homes have been torn down by wars. Coming to Chico from such backgrounds, Luyirika-Sewagudde has come to realize that it is important to be considerate of these factors when dealing with international students.

Getting people to understand the differences between the way people live in other countries and the way people live in little Chico can be rewarding-that’s to say, only if they do end up caring.

Luyirika-Sewagudde had once met a United Nations employee who had committed his life to helping people in refugee camps by distributing food. Luyirika-Sewagudde also once knew an exchange student in Chico who eventually went to the Peace Corps in Madagascar. Those are the examples of compassion toward diversity that he longs to see increase in more people in Chico and all around the world.

“It’s a gift to know people who have become sensitive to others,” Luyirika-Sewagudde said. He looked around his office as though to reinforce the fact that there is a roof over his head. “We’re here-if we choose, we will have dinner. There are those who say they are starving to death and I tell them, ‘you can’t be starving. If you’re hungry, OK, but you’re not starving.'”

The people and experiences that have entered Luyirika-Sewagudde’s life have shown him how much has progressed and how much one person can do to promote that progress.

More than 10 years ago a neighbor of Luyirika-Sewagudde worked in a company that exported wood. Luyirika-Sewagudde knew that this wood was being used for gun production in South Africa, the same guns that caused chaos in the torn-apart nation. He told his neighbor about the slaughtering that took place in South Africa during the apartheid era and through a few words he was able to get through to him. After that conversation his neighbor decided to refrain from exporting those materials.

“It may have never happened,” Luyirika-Sewagudde said. “He was willing to listen and made a personal decision.”

One person may be able to make a difference after all, but still there remains a long way ahead before progress is complete.

There have been occasions in the past in which Luyirika-Sewagudde has been asked to speak about matters of diversity at elementary schools, and he found that some of those students had never seen a black person before. These are children, not ignorant but innocent and unable to make their own decisions yet, some of whom have specifically been told to stay away from black people.

When Luyirika-Sewagudde is asked to speak to these children, he goes eagerly even if they do sometimes ask him tough questions. An elementary student once asked him if that color on his skin comes off. He replied by extending one of his hands, rubbing it with the other and calling the child to come up to him and to try to rub it off.

“It doesn’t offend me, and it doesn’t bother me,” Luyirika-Sewagudde said. “It served its purpose.”

A man of travels, a once-upon-a-time foreigner in Chico, Luyirika-Sewagudde has transitioned into more than just a student adviser. He has developed a character for himself. He brings a part of his worldly knowledge every day with him to work and puts it around his office in the form of souvenirs. Gacimi laughs when he sees Luyirika-Sewagudde pick up an object because he knows that a story that begins with “you see this” is about come out of it. But Gacimi now knows that listening to those stories is worthwhile. Those stories will either help someone make a personal or academic decision, or will help them avoid problems or might even help him or her learn a life lesson. Mostly though, his stories are supposed make clearer a more important point, the big picture.

“He brings you back to that idea that you are from a mixed community,” Gacimi said. “So go out, talk to people, be a part of it and enjoy that experience.”

And in fact, that is what Luyirika-Sewagudde does, subtly and in his own way. He brings attention to diversity, patiently, even if it takes a simple action such as attending the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue in Chico, or having a conversation with just one person about the time he picked up this souvenir or took that photo.

That photo-of the South African man in the township-tells the story of an entire population, of a time period during which some were fortunate to have homes, others managed to live in clay rooms, and some had no more than sticks and sheets over their heads. But that in no way qualifies as a reason to give up on the world. Coming from a man who has seen with his own eyes plenty that is great and plenty that is painful, there must be some value to his optimism.

“There has to be hope,” Luyirika-Sewagudde said referring to such grief as poverty, refugee camps and racism. “If you say there’s no hope then why don’t we lie down and die.”

The map on the wall by the office door has tiny red and blue flags pinned across the globe to represent all the different countries that Chico State students have come from. That same map suggests that Luyirika-Sewagudde is most likely not finished building ties to that world overseas. He will most likely travel some more, and will most likely collect a little piece of something from whoever crosses his path. Chico is not quite through with Luyirika-Sewagudde and neither is the rest of the planet.

“I haven’t grown up yet," Luyirika-Sewagudde said. "I’m still working on that."