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Bachelor of Arts in Political Science -Thunder Bay, ON - Conrad was recognized as a 2014 Global Change maker by the Ontario Council for International Cooperation (OCIC). Syed Serajul Islam, a Lakhead Political Science professor who Koczorowski names as a formative influence, recalls his student as being a standout from the beginning.
Conrad Koczorowski is a long time Thunder Bay resident and Lakehead University Graduate (BA, 2008). He participated in a six-month internship helping to improve the health of mothers and children in Uganda. By the time he left for Africa in June 2013, he’d already logged hundreds of hours volunteering in the pediatric department at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, and built a reputation not only for his sharp intellect but for his commitment to putting those smarts to work in practical settings. After his internship, the 29-year-old’s reputation grew even further—upon his return he was known as a 2014 Global Change maker by the Ontario Council for International Cooperation (OCIC). For those around him, the trajectory is not too much of a stretch. Syed Serajul Islam, a professor who Koczorowski names as a formative influence, recalls his student as being a standout from the beginning. “He’s just brilliant, one of the top students I have taught in my entire career at Lakehead,” says Islam, who is chair of Lakehead’s political science department and now based in Orillia.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Koczorowski’s mom Evi is also impressed. “Of course I am very proud of what he has accomplished, and glad that he is doing what he wants to do,” she says. She also notes that his engagement has deep roots. “He’s always liked to help others. Ever since he was a very little boy he was very social, he liked to talk with other people,” she recalls. A friend from Koczorowski’s undergraduate days, Jean Paul de Roover, echoes that impression. “He’s incredibly likeable, friendly, and outgoing,” says de Roover. He echoes Evi’s pride. “I’m incredibly proud of him, the fact he’s doing something so important overseas. It’s very selfless—that’s how Conrad operates.”
When asked to describe his own journey, Koczorowski reveals a reflective side. “It’s hard to draw a straight line from grade school to Uganda,” he muses. He identifies his rural upbringing as the origin for his awareness of community health and accessibility issues, credits his mother’s volunteer work as inspiration for his own efforts, and recalls the significance of a job at Thunder Bay’s Fort William Historical Park. “In addition to increasing my confidence, that position gave me a taste of coordination roles, and problem-solving skills I still rely on,” says Koczorowski.
Koczorowski soon realized that his passion lay in working at the ground level. “I was one year into my doctoral program at the University of Toronto, and I came to the realization that I wanted to stop living in the literature, and start to practically applying what I had learned over the years. I wanted to feel that hands-on feeling that I had when I was working at Fort William or at the hospital.
It was at that point that he heard about the International Youth Internship program. This is an opportunity funded by the former Canadian International Development Agency (now Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada), which allows young professionals and recent graduates to take on support roles in development organizations. Koczorowski applied and was accepted. After that, things moved quickly: just four weeks later, he found himself in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, starting his six months as a monitoring and evaluation officer.
Koczorowski mentions his mentor, “Morrish placed a lot of trust in me and let me take lead in a lot of the projects, which was a great experience because while he was available for questions I was able to take a leadership role,”.
While his academic and volunteer experience meant he had a good professional skill set, Koczorowski was a little more outside his comfort zone culturally since he’d never been much further than Europe internationally. In describing the differences and similarities between Africa and Canada, Koczorowski is quick to focus on the latter, noting that he found a lot of common ground in talking about music and sports, particularly soccer. He says that Kampala often felt much like a big North American city, albeit one with the sort of bustle that gave the impression of a constant street festival.
Another commonality was the fact that English is the country’s second language, although there was a bit of a learning curve when it came to slight differences in meanings. “There’s a slang lexicon,” explains Koczorowski. “For example, if someone asks you how you are, you don’t say ‘good’ or ‘well,’ you say ‘fine’. There are pre-determined greetings.” He also says the sense of humour can be very rhetorical, with many of the locals using the word ‘what’ at the end of their sentences to engage the conversation. “So someone could say ‘The streets are very packed today because of what?’ And I would wait because I thought it was rhetorical, but you’re supposed to respond, to say ‘because of the festival.’ Even in large meetings, the head of the organization would say ‘what?’ and the whole organization would shout out the answer.” While the style took some getting used to for a polite Canadian, before long Koczorowski says he was using it in his own presentations.
Koczorowski describes the “culture shock” he felt as happening in two phases: first the logistics or practicalities like the slang or the bustle of the big city with its constant stream of motorcycle taxis (called Boda-bodas) whizzing by. “Then there’s a secondary culture shock after three months as you start to become closer with people,” says Koczorowski. “You notice differences in your interpretations because you grew up in different places, with differences in schooling and media.” Koczorowski says one difference he appreciated was the directness of the conversations he would have in Uganda. He said the style also allowed him to feel comfortable asking lots of questions himself.
Amref Health Africa Executive Director, Anne-Marie Kamanye says she not only observed in Koczorowski many of the skills useful to development workers, but also many of the changes. “People who have tended to work for international organizations overseas come back with a different perspective,” she observes. “They come back with practical experience, an open mind, more cultural sensitivity.” She says she was also impressed with Koczorowski’s ability to adapt from the start, particularly coming from Thunder Bay, a relatively smaller centre when compared with Kampala’s population of 1.2 million. “It’s important not to let fear of the unknown stop you from experiencing what could end up being a wonderful, life-changing experience. That’s one thing Conrad taught me,” she recalls of meeting him at first and then again well into his internship. “It’s easy, being from small town Canada, to just say ‘no, I’m sorry, I’d rather stay home,’ but he was open. He said, ‘let me go and try it.’ When I went back four months later, I said, ‘Conrad, you look like you’ve been here for years.’”
Beyond making good friends with whom he’s still in touch via email and Facebook, Koczorowski’s experience in Uganda also sensitized him to how little Canadians know about the country and continent. “Western news sources often focus on the negative. When they talk about health the focus is more on shortcomings and there’s no emphasis on innovation. But if you’re travelling in east Africa, tourism is booming. It’s a very beautiful country, very friendly, and contrary to general myth, it’s quite safe to travel there.”
His experience has affirmed his interest in a career in health care. In the near future, that means taking off again for an eight-month fellowship in Tanzania with the Aga Khan Foundation beginning in July 2014, where he will be work on a project to address health and gender issues in rural primary schools. Later on, he could also see himself continuing to work on rural health access either abroad or in Canada, or even applying to medical school.
He’s also inspired by his recent recognition as OCIC Global Changemaker to keep encouraging other young people to follow their own passions. “It’s such a heavy title but it’s an opportunity to be a role model for young Canadians, to show how you can take something local and put it to use internationally.