How does a political science major who grew up in frosty northern Ontario end up jetting off to Sub-Saharan Africa?
For Lakehead grad Conrad Koczorowski (BA'08), travelling to Uganda to improve the health of mothers and children was something he felt compelled to do. He arrived there in June 2013 for a six-month internship with Amref Health Africa (formerly the African Medical and Research Foundation).
– Conrad Koczorowski
For those who know Conrad, his move towards volunteerism is not too much of a stretch. His mom Evi says her son, "always liked to help others. Ever since Conrad was a little boy he was very social, he liked to talk with other people."
Jean Paul de Roover, a friend who earned undergraduate and master degrees at Lakehead before pursuing a music career, echoes this view of Conrad's selflessness. "That's how he operates – he is incredibly likeable, friendly, and outgoing."
Enthusiastic children and youth greet the Amref team as they arrive in a remote rural village to collect household data
Conrad says his journey to Uganda has roots in volunteer activities he took part in as a youngster in rural Thunder Bay. "My experiences made me interested in local food and local health, and made me start thinking internationally and comparatively."
His mother's volunteer work also inspired his sense of community spirit, as did a job at Thunder Bay's Fort William Historical Park. Conrad was employed at this reconstructed 19th-century fur trade post while a Lakehead student.
"The job increased my confidence and gave me a taste of coordination roles and problem-solving skills that I still rely on," Conrad says.
By the time he left for Africa in 2013, Conrad had logged hundreds of hours volunteering in the pediatric department of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, and acquired a reputation for a sharp intellect.
Professor Syed Serajul Islam, the current chair of Lakehead's political science department, describes Conrad as "just brilliant, one of the top students I have taught in my entire career at Lakehead." Despite excelling academically and going on to complete a master's degree at the University of Waterloo and enrolling in PhD studies at the University of Toronto, Conrad began to feel restless.
"I was one year into my doctoral program when I realized that I wanted to stop living in the literature and start practically applying what I had learned over the years. I wanted the satisfaction I felt doing hands-on work at Fort William and the hospital. So I decided to pursue avenues outside the doctoral program," he says.
Conrad chats with Anthony, one of the country office's most experienced drivers, who brightened Conrad's days with an infectious smile and daily Ugandan trivia factoids
Conrad found out about the International Youth Internship program – funded by Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada – which enables young professionals and recent graduates to join development organizations. Conrad ended up approaching Amref Health Africa because of their commitment to delivering essential health and community services to people in remote areas of East Africa.
After applying for the program, things moved quickly. Four weeks later, Conrad was working as a monitoring and evaluation officer in Amref's headquarters in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, a city of 1.2 million. He also spent time in the northern and eastern sections of the country, including three weeks in the rural village of Soroti surveying maternal health programming.
– Conrad Koczorowski
The internship engaged Conrad's writing, research, and analytical skills on a variety of levels. "We reviewed what was there when projects started, tracked their evolution, studied the changes organizations made, and then tried to figure out what reforms could be implemented to have the best outcomes in the future," he explains.
Conrad's supervisor, Morrish Ojok, gave him the autonomy to develop his abilities. "He placed a lot of trust in me. It was a great experience because Morrish was available for questions, but he let me take the lead on many projects." Projects included initiatives such as evaluating an e-learning course for midwifery students seeking to upgrade their skills.
Immersing himself in his new responsibilities and navigating life in Uganda did cause a bit of culture shock. First there were the logistics and practicalities – like adapting to the bustle of Kampala with its perpetual stream of motorcycle taxis (called bodabodas) whizzing by.
"Then there's a secondary culture shock after about three months as you become closer to people," says Conrad. "You notice differences in your interpretations because you grew up in different places, with differences in schooling and media."
Nonetheless, Conrad found his feet quickly.
Anne-Marie Kamanye, Amref Health Africa's Executive Director, who met Conrad before and during his internship, was impressed by his progress. "When I went back four weeks later, I said, 'Conrad, you look like you've been here for years.'"
He found many things to admire about Uganda – including their direct way of speaking.
"They didn't let an elephant sit in the room. If they heard me say something, they would ask, 'Does everyone in Canada think like this, wear that, like to use that instrument?' You never had to skate around issues because they were always faced head-on, so it was an extremely open environment for learning." This approach allowed Conrad to feel comfortable asking questions himself.
He was also won over by Ugandans' sense of humour, which they use to strengthen relationships. Locals, for example, add the word 'what' to the end of their sentences to spark conversations.
"Someone would say, 'The streets are very packed today because of what?'" Conrad explains.
"And I would wait because I thought it was rhetorical, but you're supposed to respond: 'because of the festival.' Even in large meetings, the head of the organization would say 'what?' and the whole organization would shout out the answer."
Although this exuberant conversational style took a little getting used to, Conrad was soon incorporating it into his own presentations. And, as he became more familiar with his surroundings, he discovered commonalities between Canadian and Ugandan culture – especially when it came to music and sports.
– Anne-Marie Kamanye, Amref Executive Director
After returning from Uganda, the 29-year old's reputation received a major boost when he was honoured as a "2014 Global Changemaker" by the Ontario Council for International Cooperation (OCIC), an organization whose members work globally to achieve social justice.
Conrad overlooking Owino Market in downtown Kampala on a busy Saturday afternoon where thousands of shoppers buy and sell food, used or newly-stitched clothing, refurbished electronics, and countless other treasures
Anne-Marie Kamanye believes that Conrad's internship with Amref underscores why it's critical not to let a fear of the unknown influence life decisions. "People who have worked for international organizations overseas tend to come back with a different perspective," she observes. "They come back with practical experience, an open mind, and more cultural sensitivity."
As well as forging fresh friendships, Conrad's sojourn in Uganda sensitized him to how little Canadians know about the country and the continent.
"Western news sources often highlight the negative. When they talk about health, the focus is on shortcomings and there's no emphasis on innovation. And if you're travelling in East Africa, you see that tourism is booming because it's a beautiful country, very friendly, and contrary to popular myth, it's quite safe to visit."
A die-hard soccer enthusiast, Conrad was happy to come across a group of young children playing not far from his house
"Team Katakwi" assessed facilities in the Katakwi district of East Uganda – this photo was taken after a long 10-day stretch of 12 to 14 hour days during which Conrad developed a high fever and had to be tested for malaria: (l-r) Abel, Conrad, Sam, and Emma
Conrad's international work has altered his career path and his aspirations. In August 2014, he is embarking upon an eight-month fellowship in Tanzania with the Aga Khan Foundation to address health and gender issues in rural primary schools. As for the future, Conrad plans to continue his involvement in rural health access initiatives, either in Canada or abroad, and possibly apply to medical school.
Witnessing Uganda firsthand spurred Conrad to reach out to the general public through talks and slideshows to foster awareness about health and poverty issues in this part of the world. Meanwhile, his recognition as an OCIC Global Changemaker has motivated him to encourage other young people to follow their passions.
"It's such a weighty title but it's an opportunity to be a role model for young Canadians, to show how you can take something local and put it to use internationally."