Claremont Colleges graduate to open university in Uganda
by Dick Johnson
Ten years ago, Takako Mino, a student at Claremont McKenna College, received the Napier Award for Creative Leadership to support her efforts to teach debate techniques to students in Uganda, East Africa.
Today she is poised to create a university in that country.
Recently, Mino returned to Claremont to meet with her Napier mentors and share her ideas and dreams as she undertakes this massive challenge. It was also an opportunity to celebrate both her growth and the growth of the Napier Initiative.
The Napier Initiative at Pilgrim Place also began as a dream, a vision that included intergenerational classes of college students and local elders who had much to share and learn from each other. The first Napier class at the Claremont Colleges took place in 2012, with results that both validated and exceeded the hopes of the founders. Other classes followed, inspiring remarkable evaluations from students: “The Napier course is where I truly began to flesh out the person I wanted to be and the life I wanted to live … This course and, more importantly, the people in it, have had an unspeakably profound impact on my life.” The Claremont Colleges currently offer five Napier courses, three in 2022, and others are in the works.
Even before the courses began, the Napier Initiative began to conceive another dream: to raise funds to support selected students on post-graduation projects consistent with the Napier goals — fostering justice for all people, nurturing peace and reconciliation, and caring for our fragile earth home. So began the Fellowship Program and the Awards for Creative Leadership. Its first recipient was Takako Mino.
When asked what has set her on her path and fueled her commitment, Mino recalled her Japanese grandmother, a survivor of the atomic bomb 76 years ago. “I first heard her story when I was in third grade. She wanted no one to ever again face such a terrible thing.”
Even as a child, she pondered, “What can I do?” When she arrived at Claremont McKenna College, she chose to major in international relations, hoping to learn about conflict resolution and peace efforts throughout the world. Offered the chance to study abroad for a semester, Mino opted for Uganda, where she might learn from a society seeking to rebuild a sense of community only a few years after a bitter civil war.
What Mino found altered her perspective. She listened to Ugandans, asking them about their lives and hopes. What they needed now, more than anything else, they told her, was education for their young people. Again the question arose for Takako, “What can I do to help?”
Takako had been a good debater in high school. Maybe she could teach debate skills in Uganda. And maybe those skills could have wider uses. The following summer, she interned at the non-governmental organization Forum for African Women Educationalists in Uganda and introduced debate programming to its partner schools in rural areas. The debate program had a transformational impact on students’ confidence and critical thinking skills. Back in Claremont, Takako proposed a plan to expand the program within Uganda and to Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi to the Napier Initiative. The Napier Fellowship Award she won provided her with financial support and the encouragement of several mentors, so Takako returned to Uganda for a third time.
Learning debate inspired Takako’s students and prepared them to analyze and discuss important local and national issues. Listening to her students and their families, Takako was inspired by the many stories of children who desperately wanted education, worked hard and treasured their experience. Takako could help even more, she realized, if she gained more knowledge, training and experience as a qualified teacher. Returning to Claremont, she completed the Master of Arts program at Claremont Graduate University and began teaching in Pomona and later in Rancho Cucamonga.
Still Takako’s dream grew. A brief visit to Kenya and Tanzania in 2014 to follow up with the debate programs convinced her that East Africa needed a university that would provide not just technical education but also engage the whole person, offering a foundation in the humanities and encouraging the kind of critical thinking that young people would need as their country changed and new opportunities emerged.
“What do I need in order to start a university in Uganda?” Takako asked her advisers in Claremont. “The first thing,” they replied, “is credibility, and that means a Ph.D.” Oh, no, thought Takako, that’s the last thing I want to do. But she became convinced that they were right. So, while teaching full time, she took classes at CGU at night and on weekends and in three sleep-deprived years earned a Ph.D. Takako felt ready to go back to Africa.
Now the even harder work began. Takako realized it was vital that a Ugandan university grow out of African culture and not be a transplanted European or American institution. She secured a position as a lecturer at Ashesi University in Ghana, which allowed her to see the workings of an African university up close and learn from their example. She lived and worked in Ghana for two years. While expanding her contacts in Uganda, Takako found a Ugandan educator, Elaine Alowo Matovu, who shared her values and dream. Together their plans began to materialize. Takako moved to Uganda in October 2020 to work together with Elaine. Six months later, around that table at Pilgrim Place, Takako updated her Napier mentors on her progress, revealing her hope to open the new Musizi University in Uganda in 2023.
And it all started this question: What can I do to help?