Gatepost Interview: David Nnyanzi, visiting sociology professor

[Amanda Martin]

By Jillian Poland

Staff Writer

Where have you been employed?

I’m originally from Uganda, so I had wanted for all that time to go back to Uganda and participate. I always promised myself that if I got a good education, I would go back home and participate in the developing of the country. So in 2007, there was a job that was advertised. It was a joint-partnership job between University of Notre Dame in Indiana and a university in Uganda called the Uganda Martyrs University in Nkozi. So I applied for that job. Notre Dame needed a country director for their partnership with that Ugandan university, and the Ugandan university needed a teacher. … I was the country director for Notre Dame’s project in Uganda and I was also teaching for the partner institution. That contract ended in 2011, and then I came back to the U.S.

How has your perspective of America changed from immigrating from Uganda to the United States?

When I came here as a young man, I studied, I got friends and I married. And then the next solution was to stay here. Now, I am an American citizen. Perspective-wise, there are many differences, many changes. I grew up in a communal environment in a very small village where everybody knows the other. When I came here, it was very, very different. Boston College is a very big university. There are students from all over the world. So it was like basically coming from a village and ending up working in a big city. I think maybe the biggest change was coming from a very small place to a very big place with people that were different than who I grew up with. But actually Americans – surprisingly – were very, very welcoming. I had seen the movies before I came to the United States, but all those movies I had seen were basically violent movies. So I had kind of a bad feeling about coming, but I had to come because I was sent on a scholarship. But when I came, it was very different. Everybody says hi and smiles, and so I just fell in love with the country.

What was your favorite undergrad experience?    

As an undergraduate, I was actually head prefect of my school. I also belonged to the debating club. … The place where I studied in Uganda was in northern Uganda. At that time, there was a war. We were the only college in the area – all the other schools around were high schools. Because of the war, we needed to pump some kind of life into the area. So as the debating club, we invited all the high school students around and we would hold joint debates with them. For example, we would file a motion and then we would get the high school debaters and break them into opposers and proposers and they would be in the same groups as us. That engagement with both academic exchange in terms of debating but also community building within the university community left a lasting mark on my mind.

You began your educational career with philosophy. What brought you to sociology?

I was a little bit of an idealist. When I left the Catholic seminary, I had this idea in my head that we have world resources that are not being equally shared by everybody. … I came with that idea and went to Boston College. When I looked around, there was psychology, there were many other majors, but I found I could do this in sociology. So I actually studied with that idea. But then when I came to thinking about my dissertation, my advisor took me to lunch and she asked me, “David, what are you going to write about?” I gave her this very philosophical-type topic. … She said, “What is that?” So I tried to explain the philosophy of this and that and she said, “You know, I want you to think about something. Whatever you’re going to write about for your Ph.D., it should be something that has real meaning in your life that you should live with for at least ten years after your graduation.” So I started to think, “What are my experiences?”  I thought back and said, “OK, my mother died when I was less than three months old. My father died in an accident when I was less than a year old.” I thought about all these things, and I came up with the idea that the social context into which you find yourself determines your chances. After this, I started to specialize in the sociology of medicine, called medical sociology, because in that field, I would actually highlight those. Sociology became the place for me where I could be able to study social context and the influence of social context on people’s life chances. And that’s how I became a sociologist.

What is one book you think every student, regardless of major, should read?   

I could recommend a number of books, but I think the number one on that list would be Plato’s “Republic.” Maybe if I had a chance to say another book for students, I would say read “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen.

What advice would you give FSU students?

Work hard. Be happy. Don’t fear to change if it is necessary.

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