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‘I really thank God:’ Loyola Graduate Student Shares Reaction After Winning $100,000 Prize

Courtesy of Charles NuwagabaCharles Nuwagaba, a Loyola graduate student, won the $100,000 Opus finalist prize due to his work in Kenya. His program — Teen Mothers Project — teaches teen mothers skills and provides them with child care.

When Loyola student Charles Nuwagaba received an email last year in February notifying him he was a finalist for a humanitarian award that came with $100,000, he didn’t flinch. In fact, he deleted the email, thinking it wasn’t real.

“When I first looked at the email I didn’t take it seriously,” Nuwagaba, a 55-year-old Loyola pastoral counseling student from Uganda, said. “I get plenty of junk mail … so I deleted the Opus Prize email.”

Nuwagaba, who is from Uganda, only discovered it was real when the head of the Opus foundation emailed him personally. 

Through partnerships with Catholic universities, the Opus Prize awards faith-based humanitarian organizations a $1 million main prize and two $100,000 finalist prizes to help fund their organizations, according to the Opus website. 

In November 2019, Nuwagaba accepted the $100,000 finalist prize to support his Teen Mothers Project in the Kibera slums in Kenya. The program teaches teen mothers vocational skills, including sewing or cosmetology, while providing care and education to their children, he said. 

“This was a shock and I could not believe it,” he said. “I really thank God because when you do good things, God blesses you with many things.” 

Nuwagaba said he’s thankful for the person who nominated him, even though he doesn’t know who did it because nominations are anonymous. 

He said he plans to use the money from the Opus Prize to expand the services available to the teen mothers and improve the counseling program in the Kibera Slums once he finishes his graduate program with Loyola.

Nuwagaba graduated from Loyola with his undergraduate degree in economics in 2009 through a partnership Loyola has with his religious order of Brothers of St. Charles Lwanga, the first indigenous Catholic religious order in Africa, he said. 

For the last 30 years, the Jesuits have hosted the brothers while the university covers tuition so they can get a degree and return to Africa with new skills, Nuwagaba said. 

Nuwagaba said he plans to use the money awarded to him to help expand the services his program offers to mothers in the Kibera slums in Kenya after he completes his graduate program at Loyola.
Courtesy of Charles Nuwagaba

“By the time I completed my undergrad I was transformed,” he said. “It was not about education but the dedication and values that shaped me. It changed how I integrate social justice into my services.” 

Michael Clarke, an associate professor of English at Loyola and founder of the Bannakaroli Foundation — which spreads awareness about the Brothers of St. Charles Lwanga — said the brothers use the education they receive at Loyola to improve their work when they return to Africa. 

The Brothers of St. Charles Lwanga serve Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania through education,  healthcare, agricultural services and economic development, according to their website. 

“The altruism that this work represents and the deep faith that is the source is very impressive,” Clarke said. “It shows that Loyola is making a difference, indirectly, but very powerfully.” 

Despite not winning the main  $1 million Opus prize, Nuwagaba said he was grateful for the opportunity to share his message. 

“It was not about the money,” he said. “To me it was about networking and telling people how they can engage in transforming lives.” 

Loyola has been selected to award the 2020 Opus Prize in November, according to Janet Sisler, who is overseeing the Opus prize process and is the vice president of mission integration for Loyola. The award ceremony is one of the ways Loyola will be celebrating its 150th year, she said. 

“Our partnership with Opus is a perfect expression of how Loyola has worked to create sustainable solutions to vexing human problems for the last 150 years,” she said. 

Sisler is leading the process, which began in early 2018, she said. Loyola chose 15 members of the community, like alums, trustees and present members, to each nominate a faith-based organization. 

Now a jury of 12 Chicago community members will choose three groups to become finalists, Sisler said. Although the jury will make their decision mid-January, the finalists won’t be announced until the summer, she said.

Sisler said the current nominations include an array of faiths, including Jesuit, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu groups from Chicago and around the world. 

“We are so profoundly impacted by the ministry and dedication of the non-profits that have been surfaced,” she said. “To read the nominations, it just gives you chills.” 

The week before the ceremony, the finalists will hold symposiums to interact with Loyola students and faculty — which benefits both the student and the organizations — she said.

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