Fierberg Scholar Dreams of Being an Advocate for the Voiceless

Faridah Kisekka-Sessanga's experiences as a Muslim immigrant from Uganda inform her approach to social work

Portrait shot of Faridah Kisekka-Sessanga.

Faridah Kisekka-Sessanga (contributed photo).

Faridah Kisekka-Sessanga was inspired to go into social work thanks to a measure of help when she needed it the most. Pregnant with her first child, she sought care at Saint Francis Hospital but had no health insurance. A hospital social worker connected her to a financial counselor and other services. “She pointed me to so many resources,” says Kisekka-Sessanga, who was surprised to learn that social workers had such significant roles and wore so many hats. “She really made an impact on me.”

The extent of that impact came to fruition last fall, when Kisekka-Sessanga, a Black Muslim immigrant from Uganda, was one of two students awarded the 2022 Janet M. Fierberg Scholarship by UConn to pursue a master’s degree at the School of Social Work.

Kisekka-Sessanga’s desire to help people had first been instilled in her as a child raised by her grandmother. A Catholic, her grandmother rented homes to people from a village who often could not afford to pay rent and buy food. Even though some could not cover their rent for months, her grandmother never evicted them. “The way she raised me, if somebody needs help, you help them,” Kisekka-Sessanga recalls.

After arriving in the United States in 2005, Kisekka-Sessanga initially pursued nursing as a career, enrolling in a program at Capital Community College in Hartford. She was three weeks shy of completing her requirements when she had a crisis of conscience. “I told my husband, you know what? I am forcing myself to do nursing,” she says. “This is not me. I don’t think I’ll be happy.”

My view of social work is you have to be kind, you have to be loving, you have to be encouraging and empowering to other people. — Faridah Kisekka-Sessanga

Shifting gears, Kisekka-Sessanga enrolled in Tunxis Community College to take classes in preparation for getting a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). During this circuitous route to social work, she encountered a professor who told students that 60% of them would fail her class. Instead of being discouraged, Kisekka-Sessanga felt even more determined about her career choice. “My view of social work is you have to be kind, you have to be loving, you have to be encouraging and empowering to other people,” she says.

Resisting Microaggressions and Marginalization

In addition to having some rigorously demanding professors as an undergraduate, Kisekka-Sessanga had to face the sometimes harsh reality of being an immigrant and a Muslim in the United States. It was jarring to her that all her professors and administrators in community college were white. She felt unwelcome by an advisor in her nursing program and invisible to some of her fellow students who harbored stereotypes about Africans. “Where I came from this is not something that I had experienced,” she says. “I realized racism was really a thing.”

While she covered her hair when she first arrived in the country in accordance with her religious beliefs, she soon started to remove her headscarf. “Because I felt like I was targeted or people treated me in a certain way, I stopped covering completely,” she says. These days she has resumed covering her hair.

Those experiences of being stigmatized further fueled her passion to go into social work. “[For] those people who are marginalized like me, I feel I can be that voice and advocate for them and help them,” she says.

An instructor noted her persistence in the face of adversity. “I have never met a student more courageous and resilient,” says Yvonne Patterson, assistant professor at CCSU who taught Kisekka-Sessanga over the summer at UConn. “Faridah’s passion and commitment to social justice represents a North Star for all entering in and within the profession of social work.”

With her bachelor’s degree and 3.90 GPA from CCSU, Kisekka-Sessanga applied to the Advanced Standing Program at UConn School of Social Work, which allows students who have earned a BSW from an accredited program to get their master’s degree at UConn in less than a year. The Fierberg Scholarship has helped her cover the cost of books as well as childcare for her four children, ages 5, 9, 14, and 15.

Future Focus on Families

At the School of Social Work, Kisekka-Sessanga has chosen the Individuals, Groups and Families concentration. The experience of a cousin who had her child removed from the home reinforced her interest in fighting mental health stigma and reuniting children and parents. “I want to be that person who advocates for families,” she says.

For her field education experience, Kisekka-Sessanga serves as a school social worker at Carmen Arace Intermediate/Middle School in Bloomfield. She counsels 7th– and 8th-grade students individually and in groups. “I call them my kids,” she says.

In her work, she has found she has to check her own biases when students misbehave. “My mother would just give me a look [and I would] just stop right there,” she notes. Instead, at the middle schools she poses questions to students like, “Do you want to process this?” or “Tell me more.”

In little time, Kisekka-Sessanga has shown a talent for the work with youth, according to Wenzola Perry, a School of Social Work adjunct faculty advisor. “She’s carefully and dutifully managing her school-based assignments,” Perry says. “She enjoys working with children, especially those facing educational and emotional challenges.”

After she graduates in May, Kisekka-Sessanga plans to become a therapist. At times she can’t believe her good fortune as she is less than a year away from realizing a long-held dream. “I’m seeing the kids in group therapy and individual therapy,” she says. “This is like, oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m sitting with the kids right here and doing this. I’m getting that knowledge I will need in the field in the future.”

Her experiences as a Muslim immigrant will continue to inform her work. She recalls a recent incident when a man outside of a Walmart saw her with her headscarf and called her a terrorist. “People have no knowledge,” she says. “That kind of experience motivates me because I know there are people who have no voice.”