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San Diego State University


Pure Motives:
SDSU Graduate Student Strives to
Bring Clean Water to His Native Uganda

By Michael Klitzing

On any given day, you might find SDSU graduate student Joseph Wasswa in the mountains of East San Diego County testing the effects of air pollution on water quality. Or he might be in the lab experimenting with anaerobic wastewater treatment systems – systems that promise to purify water while using virtually no energy.

This is exactly the type of research that would excite any ambitious environmental engineering student passionate about making a difference. But for Wasswa, who came to SDSU last August from Uganda, his passion to make a difference is not abstract.

Joseph Wasswa
It is personal – very personal.

“Back, home we have water, but that water does not meet the quality standards for people to use,” Wasswa said. “We don’t have treatment technologies because we don’t have the trained personnel to solve such problems, and at the same time, it’s expensive.”

As he brings up a deadly typhoid outbreak in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala in late 2014, his frustration is evident.

“Typhoid? To kill people in a capital city?” he asks incredulously. “When I look at this I see things we should be able to handle.”

These realities are what drive Wasswa today. They’re what help him adjust to culture shock and cope with separation from his loved ones. They’re what kept him going upon first arriving in the U.S. with $700 to his name and a two-month gap before his first paycheck would be issued.

They’re what will give him clear direction once he finishes his program a little over a year from now.  

“I want to go back to my country,” Wasswa said, “and help my people.”

‘I knew it was going to be tough’


Get Wasswa talking about Uganda, and it’s quite apparent that he’s brimming with pride for his homeland – a fact that no doubt adds to his frustration over its persistent problems.

“It’s a very nice country I should say – very nice looking,” he said. “I have never seen a country better than mine in terms of resources, it has almost everything you need. The climate’s good. You don’t need fertilizer, just throw the seed in the soil and it will germinate.”

Wasswa grew up in the village of Nyendo, a trading center near Lake Victoria in the southern part of the country, and later moved to nearby Masaka Town where he attended high school. A stellar student, he was awarded a government scholarship to attend Makerere University in Kampala. After four years, he received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering, finishing at the top of his class. From there, he was retained as a research assistant and worked on engineering projects for Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.  

Had he stayed in Uganda, Wasswa could have had a rewarding career and lived comfortably. But he knew if he wanted to make the biggest difference he could, studying in the U.S. was the right move.

“I knew it was going to be tough,” he said. “I had to choose between money and comfort or desire.”

Not in Kansas anymore

In his research on programs, Wasswa stumbled onto the work of Dr. Natalie Mladenov, a professor at Kansas State University. He reviewed her research into how human practices effect water quality and saw a perfect fit, so he sent her an email about becoming her research assistant.

“Professors get a lot of those emails from all over the world,” Mladenov said. “Some people are sending out emails hoping that they land a position that’s paid, no matter what their experience or background is – even if it’s not in the same field. I saw Joseph’s email and his background and his real, genuine interest in my research stood out.”

She asked him to write a research proposal, which impressed her even more. After a quick Skype interview, she was sold.

But there was one caveat.

“She said, ‘OK, I’d like you to apply – but I’m not in Kansas, I’m going to San Diego State University,’” Wasswa recalls. “Would you like to go to San Diego?”

Wasswa, who had never before traveled outside of Uganda, decided he was going to California.

‘I have to go to school’

One of the first things Wasswa learned about San Diego was the climate. He liked that quite a bit. 

Then he learned about the cost of living. That seemed a bit more daunting.

It was an even bigger barrier than he imagined. His friends and family back home took up a collection to pay for his costly plane ticket, and when he arrived at San Diego International Airport last summer, he thought the $700 in his pocket would be enough to last the two months until he received his first research assistant paycheck.

Reality set in quickly. Wasswa had to pay for tuition, books, insurance, housing and food, and $700 – a decent sum in Uganda – was not going to cut it in San Diego.

“All I kept saying to myself was ‘I have to go to school,’” Wasswa said. “I was determined to change my life. I was determined to change the lives of my people. If it meant staying in the airport for 10 days, that’s OK.”

Mladenov – now Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering at SDSU – certainly wasn’t going to let that happen.

“I was really thinking, ‘where’s he going to stay?’” she said. “I was thinking he could stay at my house if there was no other alternative.”

With some good luck, it didn’t come to that. Wasswa had a connection in Uganda who happened to know another Ugandan living in San Diego, and the stranger agreed to take him in. Mladenov then took Wasswa to the International Student Center, where staff worked with him and put him in touch with a contact at the Student Account Services office. Eventually, he was able to get an extension on his tuition until he started receiving his paychecks. To cover his other expenses, his dwindling resources would have to suffice.

It all worked out in the end, but the uncertainty took its toll.

“I went home one evening and just slept all the way until morning – the pressure was just so much,” he recalls. “I woke up in the morning, went to church, and I decided to just keep quiet because there was nothing I could do. I had to figure it out – and I did.”

“But that first month was so, so tough,” Wasswa said.

He laughs.

“Very, very, very tough, I should say.”

A new outlook

Things are better now. With his research assistant paychecks coming, worries about finances have abated. 

Wasswa enjoys the company of his lab-mates and is passionate about his research. He’s also now plugged into the Ugandan community here in San Diego, which has made him feel supported and at home.  He misses his real home, of course, but is able to load up a calling card to talk to his parents on the phone every two weeks. He communicates more regularly with his brothers and sisters through the mobile messaging system, WhatsApp.

Wasswa is also starting to become accustomed to American culture and customs. He now finds the differences in dress less shocking. He’s become clued into the fact that people in the States are more guarded – you’re less likely here, for instance, to make a lifelong friend during a 10-minute cab ride.

“I’m learning a lot,” Wasswa said. “And it’s not just academics, it’s management, politics, other things. I always tell people that if Uganda had the opportunity to send its people to travel in the U.S., and they came back, the country would change.”

One of those things, he explains, is the aggressiveness with which Americans approach their work and their lives. For someone so driven to make a difference for his homeland, it’s no surprised he embraced that mindset enthusiastically.

After all, this is very personal.

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