Ananda Birungi.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

‘I was frustrated, infuriated, because women are just as capable’

5 min read

Experiences in Uganda and U.S. fuel Ananda Birungi’s passion for empowering others, especially women and girls

A collection of stories covering Harvard University’s 373rd Commencement.

When Uganda native Ananda Birungi immigrated to Northglenn, Colorado, in 2016 with her parents and two brothers, one of the first things she noticed was the difference in resources.

“It was very clear that the reason why my parents made the decision for us to come [to America] was for us to have better educational opportunities and employment opportunities,” said the Greenhouse Scholar concentrating in social studies and psychology.

That wasn’t the only big change that Birungi navigated as a high school student adapting to a new country and culture. “Being in the U.S. was my first time being exposed to racial difference. [I was] seeing myself as Black for the first time.”

At first, she felt out of place and saw her family struggling similarly to navigate their new lives. But never losing sight of her parents’ sacrifices, Birungi found a haven in academics. She excelled in school and after some initial adjusting, started to hit her stride.

Soon, she discovered a passion for empowering others, especially women and girls. She joined the student government, the Colorado Youth Advisory Council, and started a local chapter of Girl Up, an organization that raises awareness and funds for young women globally.

Both in Uganda and in the U.S., Birungi observed that the expectations of the boys around her differed from those for the girls. Girls were expected to help more around the home and not prioritize their education. “Those early experiences? I was frustrated, infuriated, because women are just as capable,” she said. “How do we make sure that women are able to be in schools and have the resources and opportunity to thrive?”

In 2019, she received the Dottie Lamm Leadership Award, awarded annually by The Women’s Foundation of Colorado to a student who demonstrates “resilience and leadership on the path to economic security.” She also became a Cooke College Foundation Scholar, a prestigious award that provides financial aid to 50 high-achieving high school seniors each year so they can attend a top college or university.

During her first year at Harvard, she received a call from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis informing her that she had received the 2020 Governor’s Citizenship Medal, the highest honor in the state, for her advocacy work and community leadership in high school.

As an intern at Harvard College Women’s Center, Birungi dedicated years to supporting other women on campus, and created programming that fostered community.

“She has a very nuanced perspective, because she has a lot of identities that she uses to inform her research and inform her programming,” said Alejandra Rincon, the center’s assistant director. “Ananda has been extremely instrumental in [making people feel included].”

Birungi was also involved in the FYRE Pre-Orientation Program, which aims to help first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented first-year students navigate Harvard — first as a participant and then as a team leader and as part of the steering committee.

“It’s great for the world if people use their intelligence and their resources and privilege to make a difference for the common good,” Rincon said. “And I think she is definitely somebody that will be doing that.”

Another issue close to Birungi’s heart is food justice, sustainability, and security. She volunteered three nights a week for a Harvard University Dining Services program, packing leftover meals and distributing them to food-insecure communities in Boston.

“It’s such a jarring experience sometimes, because there’s so much wealth within this institution, then you walk not too far from your House, your classes, and people are struggling with homelessness and food insecurity,” she said. “[This is] a great way to be involved in food recovery, but also a great way to redistribute Harvard’s resources.”

“Ananda is a bright light, going out into a world that needs her excellent research, analytical and writing skills, and that also needs her compassion, her warmth, and her energy.”

Anya Bassett

Anya Bassett, Birungi’s social studies instructor and adviser who now teaches at Brown, met Birungi in the fall of 2022 in her junior seminar. She said she was struck not only by Birungi’s “sharp analytical insights,” but also by the warmth and care she brought to conversations with her classmates. She listened carefully to what they had to say, displayed empathy, and showed a “remarkable capacity to synthesize her classmates’ ideas with her own.”

“Ananda missed only one class last fall: to go back to Colorado to take her citizenship test and her oath as an American citizen,” Bassett said in an email. “We celebrated her in my tutorial, and in conversations with Ananda, I came to understand how her experience as a Ugandan immigrant woman has shaped her academic interests and her commitment to advocating for others.”

As for what’s next, Birungi hopes to contribute to work on issues pertaining to women’s health, education, and equity, both in Africa and the U.S. Harvard allowed her space to explore her various interests, and she’ll be taking those passions with her as she goes.

If she had to give one piece of advice to future students, it would be to “pay attention” to the people who come into your life. Whether it’s an adviser, a teaching fellow, or Housemate, they have the potential to profoundly change the course of your life.

“The things that you learn from others here have personally shaped me and helped me in ways that I feel like I’m only starting to understand,” she said.

Bassett said she’s just happy she had the opportunity to work with Birungi.

“Ananda is a bright light, going out into a world that needs her excellent research, analytical and writing skills, and that also needs her compassion, her warmth, and her energy, devoted to making things a little better for others,” Bassett said. “I am proud of Ananda, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.”