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An Unusual Journey

From Uganda to Norway to Norman, Robert Okello has taken the road far less traveled to OU

Many an Oklahoman high school graduate seems destined to attend the University of Oklahoma. Proximity, programs, pedigree. A myriad of factors conspires to make Norman a natural choice. Not so much for a rural Ugandan. Unless you’re Robert Okello.

Okello, a United World Colleges program graduate and UWC Davis Scholarship recipient at OU, traveled, literally and figuratively, a long and winding road to OU. It started in Barlwala, in northern Uganda, took him the nation’s capital, Kampala, Norway and finally Norman. Throw in a hat he found on the shelves of a Norwegian store and you have a pretty interesting story.

One of seven siblings, Okello spent his entire early childhood in Barlwala, never straying farther from the village than feet and local transportation would take him. After finishing his primary school, grades one through in seven in Uganda, Okello passed the necessary tests to move on to secondary school, the American equivalent of high school. However, economic hardships his family faced threatened to derail further studies. That’s when good news came from the headmaster of his primary school. 

A prestigious secondary school in Kampala was offering a limited number of scholarships and based on Okello’s having earned top honors in his primary class, he was encouraged to look into the opportunity. However, by the time he had gathered all the details he faced the need to be in Kampala on Monday morning. It was Sunday evening and the last two buses from his village to Kampala were about to depart for the six-hour journey. Without a suitcase, Okello made due.

“I’d never had been out of my hometown; I had no need for a suitcase,” Okello recalls. “I put a few clothes in my father’s briefcase and caught the last bus.”

A 13-year-old leaving his village for the first time, he headed 300 kilometers away in the middle of the night for an early opportunity to continue his education, Okello made good, passing both the mathematics and English tests he was required to take. A scholarship followed and he was suddenly in the nation’s capital as a student.

“Up until that day, my village had been my whole view of the world,” Okello says. “I didn’t even have a pen to take the tests. I asked the headmaster if I could borrow a pen. He was a kind man and gave me his pen.”

Fortunately, for Okello, he wasn’t alone in Kampala. An older brother was living and working in the city and Okello had a home away from home while finishing primary studies at Turkish Light Academy. It would be the whisper of another opportunity that would lead to the next leg of his journey.

After passing Uganda’s Certificate of Education test to complete his primary studies, a friend asked Okello if he was familiar with the United World Colleges program.

UWC was founded in 1962 with the vision of bringing together young people whose experience was of the political conflict of the cold war era, offering an educational experience based on shared learning, collaboration and understanding so that the students would act as champions of peace. The organization runs 15 educational centers around the world. Okello found the UW concept intriguing and immediately decided he’d look into the prospect of applying for the two-year program. However, another obstacle soon arose. He had no computer, nor internet connection to allow for a search of information and a potential application. A primary teacher he had befriended loaned Okello a computer and a few minutes on the internet and soon he was sitting for interviews to see if he would be accepted to the program.

“I remember getting to the interviews and meeting the students from other schools and thinking, ‘Bob, I don’t think you belong here.’ They were smartly dressed and here I was in muddy shoes from a long bus ride over bad roads.”

At the end of a grueling day of interviews, students vying for one of three scholarships being offered by UWC in Uganda were gathered in a room. Only one of the awards would cover 100 percent of the costs associated with a UWC school, this one located in Norway, and the award would go to the top interviewee. Organizers announced the top sores of 948, 947 and 946. Okello again felt he was out of place and not among those in the top three.

“The lady announcing the scores said, ‘Okello,’” he recalls. "I looked around around to see if I was the only Okello in the room. Then she said Robert. Tears of joy rolled down my cheeks. I thought, to God be the glory.”

Okello was on his way to Norway and the two-year, paid appointment to UWC Red Cross Nordic in the small town of Flekke. But, as with each seminal moment of his life, that trip would not be easy. Okello held a passport, but no Visa. He had two months until he was to board a Sunday morning flight to Norway. Late in the afternoon on the Saturday before, Okello was finally handed a visa. He would cover the cost of the visa by selling a laptop he had been awarded by his primary school for garnering top academic honors in his class.

“I was nervous to the deepest core of my existence,” Okello recalls of the ordeal to get to Norway. "It was a big thing. I think I am the first person in my family to have studied out of the country. It was a very significant moment for me and my family.”

That visa ensured not only his ability to attend the UWC Nordic school, but also figured in a first for Okello. He climbed aboard an airplane in Kampala, wide-eyed and not sure what to expect.

“It was at night. I remember looking down and seeing the spotted lights within Kampala,” Okello says. "When I was growing up, my school was near an airstrip and we would see airplanes going up. I would ask myself if I would be there one day. It was an unforgettable moment I still remember the plane leaving the runway.”

Okello, a proud Ugandan, landed in Norway and immediately put on his country’s soccer jersey. He would soon find out that jersey was no match for Norway’s brutal temperatures.

“I had no jacket,” Okello admits. “I should have listened to somebody about the cold.”

A quick lesson in weather conditions behind him, Okello would spend two years in Flekke with students from around the world. During that time, he would room with students from nine different countries and would expand his view of the world.

“My definition of the world was based on the customs and traditions of the society I grew up in,” Okello explains. “Here, I was in a completely different world. I had a lot to learn from other people. 

“There are things that make us different. Those are not reasons for conflict among ourselves. My eyes were opened to this. The differences among us are a reason for celebration.”

As time drew near for Okello to consider the next chapter in his education following his two years in Norway, he began to hear talk of the University of Oklahoma from friends who were familiar with its programs, as well as the fact OU was a major destination for Davis UWC Scholars. 

OU is one of 91 Davis Program partner colleges and universities in the United States, including Yale; Princeton; Brown; the universities of North Carolina, Virginia and Michigan; Duke; Columbia; and MIT. OU has 165 Davis UWC Scholars currently enrolled representing 60 countries and all 12 of the United World College campuses worldwide where graduates have been produced. This year, OU was awarded its third consecutive Davis Cup for enrolling the largest number of Davis UWC Scholars in its entering class. Okello is one of those scholars.

His road to OU would take one more strange twist while in Norway. In need of a hat, Okello went to a local store and pulled a ball cap from a shelf. The two-letter logo on the cap, the interlocking OU, he would learn was the mark of the University of Oklahoma.

“At the time, I wasn’t really considering OU, I just wanted a cap,” Okello remembers. "I bought it and put it on. I started wearing it on campus in Norway and a teacher of mine saw it. He was telling me about looking ahead to applying to colleges. He said, 'I don’t know what universities you want to apply to next year, but I see you have an OU cap on. Who knows, maybe you can go to OU.’

“At the time it didn’t really strike me. But I remember that moment. Someone was asking me why I came to OU and that moment clicked in my mind. It was a prophecy.”

Okello recently completed a highly successful first semester in the classroom and says his decision to come to Norman has been reinforced by his experiences.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a great experience. It’s the best decision I’ve made,” Okello believes. “I feel so supported. I was a bit skeptical about OU being so huge, transitioning from a high school of 200 students. But, the sense of community is amazing. That is not so common to big universities. It feels like a close-knit society.”

As he has settled into university life at OU, Okello has had time to reflect on the life path that has led to Norman. The common thread, he knows and others can sense, is a well-grounded judgment by those around him that Robert Okello will succeed.

“I’ve lived a life that has been formed by people believing in me,” he says with a thankful tone. "My headmaster. Because a friend told me of something. It gives me a sense of responsibility. I ask myself who I am to deserve this and that makes me think about how I will give back.

“I want to find a way to make sure people sit back one day and say, ‘that was the right choice to belief in him.’”