Ruth Senyonyi, Ph.D. ’12 (Psychology & Counseling) doesn’t think of herself as a pioneer. But there’s no other word to describe the woman who became the first professional counselor in Uganda and later established the country’s first professional association for counselors.

A career in counseling was not part of Ruth Senyonyi’s original plan. She taught English in a local high school after she graduated from college. In 1989, her husband, who was a mathematics and statistics professor, felt called to ministry. The couple moved with their two young children from Uganda to Chicago for three years so he could study divinity at Trinity International University.

While her husband was in school, Senyonyi decided to pursue her master’s degree at Northeastern Illinois University. “I wanted to continue my education while I was in the United States,” she recalls. “So many of my high school students had problems they were dealing with. So I thought I would study counseling.”

Little did she know that she would pursue an online doctoral degree in Counselor Education & Supervision from Regent University nearly two decades later.

When Senyonyi returned to Uganda in 1992, she was the only professional counselor in the country. That may seem like a distinguished honor, but Senyonyi found it to be a professional obstacle. “I tried to get a job, but nobody would hire me,” she says. “Nobody understood what it meant to be a counselor. They didn’t know what I could do for them.”

Eventually, she convinced the administration at Makerere High School to give her a job working with seniors to help them prepare for college. The job was a combination of career counseling and family counseling, and she still considers it one of the most rewarding positions she’s ever held. “Working with young people was wonderful,” explains Senyonyi. “I knew I was making a difference, helping them change their risky behaviors and improve themselves so they could go to university.”

Later, her career path landed her at a rape crisis center where she trained other counselors to work with rape victims. She served as a tireless advocate for rape victims who were often shunned by their own families in her culture. Her team of counselors traveled to remote parts of the country to educate people on rape and learn how to prevent it. “Nobody ever talked about rape here,” says Senyonyi. “We worked with schools and hospitals to make it easier for people to report rape without repercussions.”

In 1998, Senyonyi transitioned to a position with the Central Bank of Uganda where she assumed the role of head of counseling and welfare. The number of professional counselors had increased, and she was asked to teach courses for a new master’s program in counseling at Makerere University.

By 2002, there were enough counselors in the field that Senyonyi saw the need for and created the Uganda Counselling Association. She became the organization’s first president. “We were all operating on our own,” she shares. “We needed to come together and create the foundation for counseling. We had nothing — not even a code of ethics.”

The association’s most pressing challenge was to educate the people of Uganda about the skills and services of professional counselors. “When you told people you were a counselor in my country, most people thought you worked with HIV/AIDS,” explains Senyonyi. “People didn’t understand that professional counselors do so much more than that.”

Thanks to the efforts of Senyonyi and her colleagues, the profession is much better understood today. Now professional counselors in Uganda have a wide range of roles and responsibilities including counseling for families, teens, work performance, health prevention, addiction, financial problems, social issues and grief.

With a passion for counseling and an insatiable desire to continue her professional education, Senyonyi began searching for a doctoral program she could complete online. “There were no programs available here in Uganda, and I didn’t want to leave my family for three years to study,” she says.

Regent’s online Ph.D. in Counselor Education & Supervision met each of her requirements: online, high quality and Christian.

Senyonyi’s husband, Rev. Dr. John Senyonyi, vice chancellor of Uganda Christian University, has been an enthusiastic supporter of his wife’s career and continuing education. But the path to Ruth’s Ph.D. was covered with stumbling blocks. Nearly 50 years of age, she was concerned about being much older than her peers. And she was anxious about participating in an online program because of her computer skills. More importantly, she simply didn’t have the financial resources to attend.

“The bank (where I work) paid for my first trip to Virginia and one of the professors gave me a place to stay,” recalls Senyonyi fondly. “I sat down with my advisors, and we tried to figure out how I would pay for the semester. When they asked about my income, we converted it into U.S. dollars and realized how little it was. I broke down in tears.”

Against the odds, in June 2008, Senyonyi began the program at Regent. Through grants and the kindness of strangers, she paid for the program. Her last year and a half, she received the President’s Award, an academic honor that covered her tuition through graduation in 2012. “The Lord provided for me,” says Senyonyi. “I had no idea how I would be able to do this, but God is indeed a God who provides to the end!”

For Senyonyi, it was an uplifting experience to be surrounded by other professional counselors for three years. “I got to learn from others who are more experienced than me,” she says. “I instantly had 18 people I could talk to who understood exactly what I was talking about, and I’m ever grateful for that.”

The connections she made at Regent are vital to her work today. In a country where professional counseling didn’t even exist a few years ago, Senyonyi is able to lean on the expertise of colleagues around the globe. Despite the obstacles in her path, she continues to learn and grow in her profession with plans to open her own practice as a consultant and write a book for counseling professionals. Looking back on her decision to leave teaching and pursue an advanced degree, Senyonyi says it was all part of God’s plan. Her role was simply to learn and take that knowledge where it was needed most.

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