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UW-Eau Claire Alumna Makes Dream Come True for Son of Alumnus Who Lives in Africa

RELEASED: Nov. 21, 2005

Samson Gimui
UW-Eau Claire alumna Mary Hilfiker '67 is supporting a scholarship to cover tuition and fees for freshman Samson Gimui, at left, who is from Uganda. Samson's father, Joab Kiboma Gimui, is a 1970 UW-Eau Claire graduate. (UW-Eau Claire photo by Rick Mickelson)

EAU CLAIRE — When Samson Gimui walked onto the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire's campus this fall, he made the dreams of two UW-Eau Claire alumni come true.

Samson's father, Joab Kiboma Gimui, had long dreamed that one of his six children would attend his alma mater. And Mary Hilfiker — a 1967 graduate with a love for the people of Africa — longed to give a young African the opportunity to study at an American university.

"I've been to Africa three times and on every visit I've met people who have touched my soul," Hilfiker said of her interest in Africa. "Everyone knows of the problems in Africa; the poverty and AIDS. But not everyone knows the wonderful kindness of the people. They're good, gentle souls."

While on a boat in Zimbabwe during her most recent visit, Hilfiker met a group of Irish nuns. She was moved by their stories about the orphanage they ran for girls whose parents had died of AIDS, and she promised them that if one of the girls was capable of succeeding at an American university, she would pay for her education.

The nuns later contacted Hilfiker to say they had found such a person. Letters and photos were exchanged but when Hilfiker tried to finalize plans, she couldn't reach the young woman or the nuns. Most likely, she said, the orphanage had been attacked and everyone was forced to flee.

In the months that followed, Hilfiker received letters from other young people who lived near the orphanage. They had found her letters literally blowing in the wind and asked if she would do for them what she had offered to do for the young woman.

"At that point, I was more determined than ever to do this but I realized that I was going about it all wrong," said Hilfiker, who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in St. Paul, Minn. "So I asked UW-Eau Claire to help me establish a scholarship to help a student from Africa."

In July 2004, the UW-Eau Claire Foundation sent letters to the 14 known UW-Eau Claire alumni who live in Africa, asking them if they had children or grandchildren who might want to attend their alma mater.

Within weeks, they heard from Joab Kiboma Gimui, a 1970 graduate who came to UW-Eau Claire through a government-sponsored exchange program. He wrote that it was his dream that his children could study in the United States, preferably at UW-Eau Claire. But Kiboma Gimui, a lecturer at the Islamic University in Uganda, didn't have the resources to make his dream come true and the government-sponsored programs that had helped him no longer existed.

Kiboma Gimui asked that his youngest son, 20-year-old Samson Gimui, be considered for the scholarship.

"When I read Kiboma's letter, I knew this was it — Samson was the student I wanted to help," said Hilfiker, whose scholarship includes paying travel costs and tuition and fees. "His father couldn't afford to send him to America and that's who I wanted to help."

Once Samson Gimui was identified as the scholarship recipient, Hilfiker and the Foundation staff began the difficult task of bringing him to campus.

"The road to getting everything accomplished so Samson could come here was long," said Marcia Van Beek, director of major gifts for the UW-Eau Claire Foundation. "Fax numbers failed, e-mails weren't always answered because Samson's father had limited computer skills. He relied on Samson to handle e-mail, and Samson was often teaching in a village where they had no electricity. Mail took more than a month to reach them. The sheer effort they went through to get Samson here was incredible. It speaks to Kiboma's desire to make this happen for his son."

There were so many challenges that Kiboma Gimui kept the scholarship a secret from his son for months, not wanting to get his hopes up until he knew it could really happen, Gimui said.

After details were finalized at UW-Eau Claire, it took several months and multiple contacts with government officials to get a passport, Gimui said. Getting his visa was even more difficult. He spent many days at the U.S. Embassy waiting for an interview, more days waiting to hear if he was approved and more days yet waiting to receive the visa once it had been approved.

"They kept telling me to come back tomorrow," Gimui said. "Every day I would go and every day they would tell me to come back. I was to fly out on Wednesday so I could get here for my orientation. At 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, I got my visa. I made friends with the Embassy guards because I'd been there so many days. They helped me get it in time."

He left for America the next day. Four flights, six countries and nearly 30 hours later, Gimui finally arrived at the Minneapolis airport — a little more than a year after his father received the letter announcing the scholarship. Hilfiker, Gimui's roommate and his family, and his host family were at the airport to greet him.

"When I saw him get off the plane, I ran to him and asked if he was Samson," Hilfiker said. "When he said he was Samson, we embraced. He was mentally and physically exhausted from his long journey but I knew immediately that I was right — he's the student I want to help."

"As soon as I got here, I forgot the hard time I'd been through," Gimui said. "Everyone was so welcoming that I forgot everything else."

Gimui, whose family lives on a small farm, had never before left Uganda.

"I had no idea I'd ever have the chance to move to another country," Gimui said. "My father returned to Uganda after college because his mother was sick. Then the government was taken over and it became very hard to travel. Now there are few scholarships available and you must know the right people to get them. It is not easy to get to America now."

While he's been on campus just a few months, Gimui said he understands already why his father has such fond memories of his years at UW-Eau Claire.

"I feel good about being here," said Gimui, a computer science major. "This is a welcoming place. I like the smaller feel; I appreciate Eau Claire more than a place like New York City. I like it here more each day."

The campus is even more special to him because it's his father's alma mater, Gimui said, adding that his father enjoyed showing him photos of UW-Eau Claire, especially of people dressed for winter. "My dad really wanted me to come here; he did his best to make this work for me," Gimui said.

"Samson's father loves America," Hilfiker said. "It's been more than 30 years since he's been here, but he's still doing everything he can to support a student exchange. That's why international travel is so important — you see the world differently once you've traveled and met people. You can't hate people you've come to know."

Hilfiker said she plans to pay Gimui's tuition and fees until he graduates.

"I hope he can then go back to Uganda and make a difference," Hilfiker said. "I hope he can make a difference in his country and make life better for the people there."



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