What you need to know:
Dr Rose Clarke Nanyonga, the vice chancellor of Clarke International University, is passionate about health sciences and applied technology. She is the first woman in her family to earn a university degree, the first woman associate professor of nursing in Uganda and the first nurse vice chancellor in higher education in Uganda.
A first time in a vice chancellor’s office, a place not many have found themselves, somewhere on Kawagga Close, off Kalungi Road in Muyenga, which happens to be the home of Clarke International University, only gets you close to a decorated woman of many firsts.
Dr Rose Clarke Nanyonga, the vice chancellor of Clarke International University, whose niche is in health sciences, business and applied technology, is as charismatic as they come.
The more she speaks, the more you want to lend her your ears. “I am the first woman in my family to earn a university degree. I am the first female associate professor of nursing in Uganda and the first nurse vice chancellor in higher education in Uganda,” she proudly says with a satisfactory grin.
A scholarship named after her
The scholar also has a scholarship at Yale University, Connecticut in the US, named after her. “Weeks after I had graduated, I got a letter from the President of Yale University, Peter Salovey, saying a scholarship had been named after me,” she says.
A donation was made to the university to run the Rose Clarke Nanyonga Scholarship Fund on her behalf, to support graduate students in the school of nursing and midwifery at the university. It is the same institution where she graduated on top of her PhD class of nursing, with focus on leadership and policy among health care providers in Uganda in 2015.
Nanyonga was in 2002 also nominated for student nurse of the year at Arkansas Tech University, where she was a commencement speaker on her Bachelor of Science in Nursing on the graduation day.
In 2020, she was awarded the Hall of Distinction, which is the University’s highest honour. She re-wrote the Arkansas Tech University script at Baylor University for her masters in Nursing with focus on family practice and leadership, making her a family nurse practitioner then.
The bookworm as she refers to herself, also has a graduate certificate of concentration in global health at the Whitney and Betty McMillan Centre for International Studies, Yale University, where she was recognised as a distinguished alumni in 2018.
While wearing all these hats, Nayonga sits on more than seven boards. She has also given back to the community through Rose’s Journey Scholarship Fund, which she established in 2009, supporting more than 70 nurses and other healthcare providers to complete their education at university.
“I want to add value to communities, and I want that to be my legacy. I balance professional work as an educator, as a nurse, a scholar who does voluntary work. When I am not here, I am out there doing work in the community,” she says.
For a village girl from Bamunaanika, Luweero District, Nanyonga’s journey has been one of overcoming all stumbling blocks. She is aware that society has men with some prevailing notions about gender prescribed roles.
“If you do not fit within those prescribed roles, you get that challenge. I have learnt over the years not to pay attention to such. People should be able to look beyond those prescribed roles and soar high,” she adds.
Resilience is one way she personifies herself. Her mission is to accomplish everything she sets her mind on regardless of the challenge at hand. “I am shaped by experiences of my childhood,” she adds.
How the war shaped her career
While she is running a colourful and exceptional academic and manegerial race, Nanyonga remains modest. It is an attribute she credits her early life experiences for. “I loved being a nurse and did it for 16 years. Every patient is unique and walking a healing journey with them is rewarding. Some of the grounding passion that I have for training health care providers comes from that background,” she explains.
Nanyonga was born in Mukono, eight months before war rocked the country, when Ugandan insurgents under the orders of former President Milton Obote, from Tanzania invaded Uganda.
“I am a product of the war of the 70s,” she says. As a child, she lived in Kasawo, Kayunga, Nakaseke and Nakasongola because her father’s job as a dresser and clinical officer, saw him transferred from one government health centre to another.
However, tragedy befell before she could get into her teenage years. Nanyonga lost her mum in 1982 during the war, when she was delivering her ninth child. This is what sparked her career in nursing.
“If my mother did not have a nurse or midwife to aid her to deliver, I should become that nurse for another woman,” she reminisces.
Her nursing expedition led her to Kiwoko Hospital, Nakaseke District in 1989, which was her turning point. It is here that she met Dr Ian Clarke, a reknown physician in Uganda, and his wife Robbie Clarke.
They loved her dedication to nursing and legally adopted her. This explains the origin of Clarke as one of her names. Her new parents fueled her nursing aspirations by helping her pursue further education in the US, starting at Arkansas Tech University to Dallas, Texas where she worked as a neurotrauma nurse, before moving to Baylor University for her master’s degree.
Upon completing her master’s degree in the US, Nanyonga briefly returned to Uganda and played an instrumental role at a time when Dr Clarke was setting up the first school of nursing and midwifery. This later evolved into Clarkes International University. She later left for the US again, to take a shot at her doctoral studies at Yale University.
Settling in as a vice chancellor
After working in the US for almost two decades, Dr Nanyonga was first hired as a deputy vice chancellor in 2015, after finishing her doctoral studies in the same year. Within three months of her appointment, the then sitting vice chancellor, Dr Scott Brown left, making her an easy choice for acting vice chancellor.
This appointment caught her off-guard. “I was convinced the management committee would get another replacement,” she says. After serving both as the deputy vice chancellor and acting vice chancellor for two years, she was permanently handed the office in 2017.
“I needed to learn about the higher education ecosystem in the country. Learn about the university, evaluate the staff, establish a network and connect with other vice chancellors because you cannot operate in a vacuum. The time I spent in acting capacity helped me acclamatise myself with all these skills. It allowed me to get my feet wet,” she recalls.
Female vice chancellors in Uganda
It is eight years now and she remains one of three female vice chancellors in the country, joined by Prof Joy Kwesiga of Kabale University and Prof Olivia Nassaka of Ndejje University.
The three also belong to an African female vice chancellor forum, which meets annually for mentorship, discussing opportunities, sharing knowledge and experiences.
“We also create pathways for young women scholars to become vice chancellors. At the end of my10- year tenure, I should have mentored other people to step into my shoes. This group of amazing women are running higher education institutions on the continent and we need that level of solidarity,” she clarifies.
Dr Nayonga is aware that universities are under criticism for producing raw graduates, who lack employability skills. She believes mainstreaming open distance and e-learning into curricula will support students to develop relevant skills.
Innovation is game-changer
The seasoned scholar also advocates for regulations that enable innovations because the current curriculum is not agile enough to facilitate learners compete globally.
“We need to have a generation of learners who can boldly agitate for change and regulators who can allow that change to happen. So we need evidence-informed policies going forward,” she says.
As a vice chancellor, she has put in place an open door policy, where students can walk into her office for a chat or coffee because she believes people cannot become what they do not see. “For one to be a role model, one should be accessible and visible,” she emphasises.
Her rise to the top is what she wishes for all the young girls out there, especially those entrenched in misogynistic societies. The fact that there are more than 62 institutions that offer degree courses in the country, with only three female vice chancellors is very telling.
“Is it really because women are not well prepared and educated to occupy the positions of power or are we dealing with some structural elements that keep them out? It is a question we must answer and create opportunities for such conversations,” she says.
Need for leaders from both gengers
For now, she rallies girls to keep dreaming like she did; from Bamunaanika to Yale. Sometimes we think that the flower is responsible for blooming, but we have to create that environment for both young girls and boys to thrive,” she advises before emphasising that every child, boy or girl, deserves equal opportunity.
No society benefits from educating women more than men or vice versa because the world needs leaders from both genders. “We need to create opportunities that enable us to educate both; there are things women do really well, also things men do very well. It is such a tragedy that we have failed to realise this for many years,” she explains.
Amid challenges facing the health sector in Uganda, Dr Nanyonga urges health policy makers, practioners and various communities in the country, to shift the conversation from the rhetoric to action. “We are experts at identifying problems. It is time to find solutions and implement them,” she says.
A donation was made to the university to run the Rose Clarke Nanyonga Scholarship Fund on her behalf to support graduate students in the school of nursing and midwifery at the university. It is the same institution where she graduated on top of her PhD class of Nursing with focus on leadership and policy among health care providers in Uganda in 2015. Nayonga sits on more than seven boards. Through Rose’s Journey Scholarship Fund, which she established in 2009, she has mentored more than 70 nurses healthcare providers.