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'Something I was meant to do'

Jeffrey Bulanda (MSW ‘04, PhD ’08) displays a gift given to him by students he taught at a university in Sierra Leone.

Teaching and living social work in Sierra Leone

Jeffrey Bulanda (MSW ’04, PhD ’08) knew he wanted to work in sub-Saharan Africa. But he didn’t know where.

“I started contacting universities, and it was challenging,” Bulanda says. “Many universities don’t have a website or e-mail. It was by chance that I found out about Sierra Leone—the university there was starting its first-ever social work program.”

Bulanda received a Fulbright award to spend the 2013-2014 academic year teaching the subject, although that’s only part of what he ended up doing.

Sierra Leone, located in West Africa, emerged from a civil war in 2002. Social work education  and policy, focusing on mental health and violence prevention, are in their formative stages. 

“It was a great experience in that social work isn’t yet defined there, so we got to have a small part in defining it,” Bulanda says. “Working with students to see what they want it to be and what they need—putting together knowledge and understanding—it was great.”

Teaching conditions at the university, however, presented some challenges. 

There were no textbooks and no electricity. Class was sometimes held outside.

 “Many students had poor writing skills,” Bulanda says. “Class sizes were large—the smallest class I taught had 60 students. A lot of students weren’t computer literate.” 

Bulanda taught social work courses two days a week and held office hours three days a week. 

“Holding office hours there was different from what it means here,” Bulanda says. “It meant teaching them how to write and how to set up e-mail addresses. I wanted to offer them guidance and support, but I also had to be firm. I said, ‘I understand your struggles, but if you want to work at UNICEF or Save the Children, you’re going to need to know these things.”

In addition to his teaching duties, Bulanda conducted research on mental health needs of university students and how war impacts their educational trajectories. He also created a youth empowerment program, Pikin Padi, which means “friends of the children” in Krio, a local language. Among other things, the youth of Pikin Padi Network conceptualized and created a documentary on child labor. In exchange, Bulanda paid their school fees (required for secondary education). He also worked at an elementary school.

 “I really felt like it was what it meant to be a social worker in the purest sense,” Bulanda says. “You develop programs where you see need and empower people to impact their community.”

During his time in Sierra Leone, Bulanda lived in a village outside of Freetown, the capital city. 

“There was electricity about 5 percent of the time, and everyone walked far for water,” Bulanda says. “I prepared myself for challenges, but living next door to people in utter poverty—you never get used to that. I had neighbors living in rusted-out metal structures. During the rainy season, I would walk down the street and people’s roofs were blown off during the night. People had 25 cents a day to eat. It certainly transformed the way I think about what I spend five dollars on.”

Bulanda returned to the United States in July of this year and is now teaching at Aurora University, but his work in Sierra Leone is ongoing. Bulanda is an adjunct professor at the University of Sierra Leone, advising students as they write their senior theses. He continues to serve as the executive director of Pikin Padi and is sponsoring the educations of a number of students. He oversees two interns from afar. 

He remains in touch with many of those he worked with while in the country. The proprietors of the elementary school at which Bulanda volunteered renamed the school after him—Jeff Bulanda International Academy.

Bulanda hopes to visit Sierra Leone in December, although that is contingent on the status of the Ebola crisis. Regardless, he will spend May and June of 2015 there.  “I’m looking forward to going back,” Bulanda says. “My work there is something I was meant to do. It’s who I am.”

Read more stories of outstanding Loyola alumni