Student engagement crosses borders to Uganda

Taylor Graham
February 25, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Natasha Ferguson, a junior majoring in industrial engineering, has been consistently involved during her time at Penn State. After becoming a part of Empower Orphans — a charitable organization that seeks to help orphans and at-risk children around the world develop self-sufficiency — Natasha worked with the Student Engagement Network to take her involvement from Penn State to Uganda. Taylor Graham, a Student Engagement Network intern, recently spoke with Ferguson about her experience.

Q: What can you tell me about yourself and your involvement at Penn State?

Ferguson: I’m the director of Penn State Outreach for the Nittany Consulting Group — a student-run organization focused on helping other students find a career in consulting. I’m involved with THON and I’m also in Schreyer for Women — an organization founded in 2017 within the Schreyer Honors College that focuses on empowering female scholars and surrounding communities. As for Empower Orphans, I’ve been involved since my freshman year and now I’m the International Relations Chair.

Q: What do you do for Empower Orphans?

Ferguson: My role is to plan trips for our organization. So far, we have made two trips to Uganda. One was over spring break in March 2018 and the second was later that winter in December, which was my first time going. Spring break just wasn’t long enough because travel alone takes almost two days. Our December trip was much longer, so from now on, we’d like to make that an annual trip.

Q: What was the purpose of the trip you went on?

Ferguson: It was more of a scouting trip. We wanted to go there, see what they do, how they operate. Robert Flemming, the man who helps run the orphanage, pointed out that when people visit, they’ll often say, “Oh… I’m a doctor.” And all of the kids will start saying things like, “I want to be a doctor when I grow up.” They have ideas of some professions, but it’s very narrow… and that’s the beauty of college students coming. We can talk about what we’re passionate about and teach them about it, too.

I think moving forward we want to develop a project with them or at least create some way to give them the tools needed to develop their skills. For example, there was a boy who was absolutely fantastic at drawing. He has a real talent and we’d love to see that grow. There was another boy who I lent my camera to and he took amazing pictures. He has an amazing eye, which really blew me away. We see things like that and now we’re trying to develop programs that will allow them to take those talents and turn them into self-sustaining skills.

Q: What was a typical day like in Uganda?

Ferguson: There were seven of us and we stayed in the volunteer house. We were there during the children’s summer break, so we got to see them all day, which was pretty awesome. They love card games, soccer and jump rope. My arms hurt for the entire time after all the jump rope. And I was terrible compared to them at soccer. We brought some activities for them from home as well. We brought tie-dye, which they loved. We brought potato sacks and did a relay-race day. We also brought Twister, which was a favorite. We had a movie night, too. They’re obsessed with the Avengers and all the Marvel movies, which I really appreciated.

Q: What were the kids like?

Ferguson: As I briefly mentioned earlier, one thing we really loved about the kids is that they’re very self-sustaining. They have all these small businesses that they do in order to remove the need for donations. They sell coffee, they serve pizza, and they’re also trying to start their own safari service. They’re happy kids and very hard workers.

Q: How do you think this engagement experience will affect you career-wise?

Ferguson: I’m actually interested in getting into consulting, including philanthropic consulting, because it gives you a range of opportunities and industries to get involved in. This trip really opened my eyes to that. It not only made me appreciate things differently, but it also reassured me that I’m going in the right direction.

Q: Why do you think engagement is important for students during their time at Penn State?

Ferguson: I think it’s important because you can only hear so much before you need to see it for yourself. Experiencing something is very different than just reading about it, hearing about it, or looking at pictures of it. But actually going is just broadening your perspective in a way that you can’t do at home. Getting involved gives you the opportunity to figure out new things on your own and get those skills that will allow you to have a more impactful effect on your life and your future.

Q: How was the Student Engagement Network able to make this trip possible?

Ferguson: The Student Engagement Network made it financially feasible for all of us. If I had to pay for that flight ticket on my own, I wouldn’t have been able to go. And that applies to pretty much all of us that went because the funding covered our flights. I think we can all agree that it would have been extremely difficult for us to go without the help of the Student Engagement Network. Making the trip seem possible has made more people want to get engaged. When we came back, the interest was growing … and people are getting more excited about getting involved now.

To learn more about previous grant awardees and their engagement experience stories, visit

Additional details about the grant program, including eligibility requirements and instructions on how to submit an application, can be found at

The Student Engagement Network is a joint initiative between Undergraduate EducationStudent Affairs and Outreach and Online Education. The network's mission is to advance the power of participation by connecting students with experiences that empower them to make a positive impact and become leaders of the world.

For more information about the Student Engagement Network, visit or email

  • A house in Uganda

    One of the houses at the Malayaka House orphanage, in Uganda.

    IMAGE: Natasha Ferguson / used with permission
  • Children playing with a parachute

    Natasha Ferguson took this picture of the children who live at Malayaka House playing with a rainbow parachute, during her trip to Uganda with Empower Orphans. 

    IMAGE: Natasha Ferguson / used with permission
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Last Updated March 20, 2019