December 09, 2023

Creston grad takes gold (and bold)

Jessica and her husband Grandson Mwanza smile during their trip to the U.S. in July.

When graduating from Creston High School in 2012, Jessica Cramer knew she wanted to do mission work. Eleven years later, now Jessica Mwanza, she is being awarded for her work in speech-language therapy in Zambia by her college alma mater, the University of Norther Iowa.

Mwanza said she was became interested in speech pathology due to her mother, Creston preschool and kindergarten special eduction teacher Sherri Cramer.

“She could recognize it in myself before I could recognize it in me,” Mwanza said. “I knew I wanted to work with kids with special needs and I knew I wanted to help people, but I knew I didn’t want to be a special education teacher. She got me hooked up with a few of her prior colleagues and I just fell in love with [speech pathology].”

During her time at UNI, Mwanza love for her work and her personal faith grew.

“As I went through university, I just really loved the coursework, the clinicals and the work and therapy we were doing,” Mwanza said. “Over my college years, in my personal faith I grew a lot and just having a desire and feeling a calling to be willing to go wherever I needed to go to help whoever I needed to help. Kind of that openness if that would be locally, internationally, wherever that would take me. It really delved into low-resource context.”

After graduating with her masters, Mwanza began looking for a job that would satisfy her calling.

“I like to say it was a divine Google search,” Mwanza said. “I had already been hired to work at an AEA out of Ottumwa. I just really felt this calling. I just felt that God was saying to me, ‘Hey, I think you should be able to use this internationally.’ I literally typed into Google “Speech language pathology missions.” Special Hope Network was the only one that had a website that looked legit.”

Special Hope Network is a Christian nonprofit that focuses on children with intellectual disabilities in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Staff members work to not only teach the children, but also help the parents learn special education techniques.

“There’s a huge shortage of special education teachers and therapists [in Zambia],” Mwanza said. “We operate as an organization six community care centers, which are basically one-stop shops where we train the parents on how to do all these kinds of things to help their child grow and develop. We help teach parents so they can learn how to specifically teach their child.”

Mwanza has been in this position for six years, though that wasn’t the original plan.

“The plan was originally a one-year contract. I initially was working with a pilot project. They didn’t know if it would work more than a year or not,” Mwanza said. “Life has significantly changed a lot since then. Got married to my husband Grandson Mwanza and we have two dogs and a house. I think the longer I worked here, the more invested I became in how to advocate for our kids that have disabilities here.”

Because of this passion, Mwanza has gone above and beyond in her position, specifically with the help of some of her old professors at UNI.

New projects

Mwanza speaks at a recent event for parents of special needs children in Zambia.

“I’ve kept in touch with some of my professors since I graduated. They’ve been such easy faculty to work with and problem solving some of the unique challenges that we might come across in Zambia,” Mwanza said. “In 2019, after I’d been here a bit, I partnered with one of my mentors, Dr. Lindsey Squires.”

Squires teaches classes on language learning and speech development in bilingual and culturally diverse areas at UNI. She and her students worked with Mwanza to create a developmental assessment toll similar to a preexisting Malawi version.

“Her and her students were able to collaborate together and basically put together this really great assessment for us,” Mwanza said. The project got shelved due to COVID, but Mwanza hopes to start using it again soon.

Another UNI professor Mwanza has worked closely with is Dr. Laura Pitts, who specializes in a disordered swallowing called dysphagia.

“Right now she’s helping me work on projects that are at the University Teaching Hospital. At the UTH, there is a stroke unit getting created by Doctor Deanna Saylor and her team from John Hopkins University with the global neurology group,” Mwanza said. “She invited myself and my other colleague Doctor Muchinka Peele to help with creating Zambia’s first dysphasia protocols for that dedicated stroke unit.”

GOLD and Bold

It is due to her hard work in Zambia and collaboration with her alma mater that Mwanza is being awarded UNI’s GOLD and Bold award.

Mwanza will be awarded UNI’s GOLD and Bold award Thursday, Nov. 9, along with Nicole North and Daniel Laudick. GOLD and Bold awardees are chosen based off of their exceptional educational, career or personal achievements made since their graduation. Nominees must have graduated within the last 10 years.

“When you’re doing your day to day job, it doesn’t feel extraordinary. You’re just serving your patients, doing the thing you were trained to do,” Mwanza said. “But to be recognized by the faculty, to be recognized for this award, I think it just goes to show how important the work is in serving our most vulnerable populations.”

Mwanza credits her success to her team.

“It’s a team effort for this to be accomplished. It’s not just one person’s work, it’s the work of us in collaboration with our Zambian staff members, our team, the parents, the kids that we work with,” Mwanza said. “This award really just goes to show, when you engage in your community and everyone works together, we’re really able to make a difference in the lives of persons that have communication disorders.”

Getting to this point in her life took plenty of work. Mwanza credits her parents for giving her the drive to support other.

“Growing up, our family had a big emphasis on contributing to helping our neighbors and helping support our members in our community,” Mwanza said. “I remember even before you learned how to drive, Dad would take us kids to mow lawns for different women from our church. Just from growing up to before I went to university, I think it was just instilled in us as kids to care for other people.”

Creston grad Jessica Mwanza (far right) stands with Special Hope Network’s Zambia ENT, Audiology and Speech Therapy Society.

Getting started

Mwanza explained that there are a number of ways to get oneself into mission work, both nationally and internationally.

“Trying to look for opportunities can be really helpful, but you can start small. It doesn’t have to mean today I’m going to get on a plane and go all the way to Tanzania. It might be, I’m going to go on a trip to Oklahmoa and I’m going to do a service project there,” Mwanza said. “Engaging in service areas that are local or abroad are really helpful.”

For international work, Mwanza has a couple of tips.

“Do your homework. If you feel like you’re interested in this, go to the people that are in that field and try to learn from them,” Mwanza said. “I think of myself from when I was in college and I was thinking through, now how do we do this. How do I go from a small town girl in Creston to all the way across the world? Just allowing those experiences and to think deeply about what exists out there and build on that knowledge. Bonus tip, being flexible is really key because that humility and flexibility allows you to learn so much more than if you would have just jumped right in.”

Aside from the satisfaction of helping others, Mwanza said that leaving the country brings a number of other joys.

“It’s such a treasure to experience the multiplicity of cultures and lifestyles and languages and foods,” Mwanza said. “Immersing yourself into a different culture just brings such a different worldview and you can have such greater compassion and empathy for other people by experiencing what it’s like in their life.”

Erin Henze

Originally from Wisconsin, Erin is a recent graduate from UW-Stevens Point. Outside of writing, she loves to read and travel.