In the wake of personal tragedy, UC student resolves to solve health problems in her native Uganda

CINCINNATI – As a child in the poor, remote village of Kabingo in Uganda, Maria Nakafeero listened to the stories about her older sister's untimely death. Then, she saw three more siblings die from malaria, fever, and infection, including a sister who was six months pregnant.

As she grew and excelled in school, Nakafeero came to realize that all of their deaths were from treatable causes. Now 27, she is earning a master's in public health at University of Cincinnati , with dreams of modernizing her native nation's health care and infrastructure to prevent more needless deaths.

"One of my wildest dreams is to work with international health agencies – Unicef, the World Health Organization," Nakafeero said with a bright smile. "So many people have helped me come to this place. I'm more than happy to be a servant of others."

James O'Reilly, a UC public health systems and product safety and labor law professor, became one of those helpers when he selected her as the first recipient of a new full scholarship he established with a $100,000 gift. 

The James O’Reilly International Student Scholarship Fund for the Master of Public Health will award $25,000 to a student a year from a developing nation who is pursuing the degree with the intention of applying her knowledge to solutions back home.

He hopes to find other donors to make the scholarship permanent, which coincides nicely with the push by Dr. Jun Ying, the new public health program director, to boost international student participation in the program. The number of international students has increased from one in 2011-12 to six in 2013-14.

"This will make it possible to help them thrive," O'Reilly said. "An advanced degree from the United States is a badge of honor in Third World countries. Maria could become the minister of health in Uganda."

Nakafeero's journey to UC nearly ended prematurely more than once. Her family scraped together money to send her to a private school as a little girl but could no longer afford it when she was in second grade. But she earned a scholarship that kept her on track.

She found that she could not afford tuition in high school but landed another scholarship. When she resolved to pursue her master's degree at UC, she leaned on about 25 family members, friends and benefactors at home, some giving as little as $20 to help get her here.

"I'm just so grateful to everyone who is standing in my life," she said.

Nakafeero originally came to Cincinnati in 2007 as chaperone and translator for an 8-year-old girl whose face and scalp had been disfigured as an infant by a feral pig. The girl was brought to Cincinnati for reconstructive surgery by medical missionaries affiliated with Comboni Missionaries' Hope for Kabingo , including Dr. Dallas "Buzz" Auvil, a Good Samaritan Hospital psychiatrist.

She made additional trips, including one during which Shriners Hospital performed successful surgery on the girl, who is now 16 and healthy.

Nakafeero became familiar with UC's program and stayed in touch with friends like Kent and Elizabeth Rogers and their son, Drew, who encouraged her to apply to UC.

"She's always had really good leadership skills, and I think she'll be a great help in Uganda," Drew Rogers said.

The arduous process to get to UC involved multiple tests and visa applications, but she made it last spring. "I really love the program. I feel like I'm in the right place," she said.

Kent and Elizabeth Rogers have welcomed her to their Anderson Township home for the duration of her classwork.

Still, she was girding herself to patch together more help to pay for her second year at UC when O'Reilly's $25,000 scholarship erased the need for more fundraising.

"This bright student is an example of what we are teaching here for the good of public health worldwide," O'Reilly said.

To donate to the scholarship, click here

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