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The humble, young man in huge academic robes
Publish Date: Jun 05, 2014
The humble, young man in huge academic robes
Isabalija at his office
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By Conan Businge and Roselyn Karatsi

At just 37 years of age, he wines and dines with the high and mighty in the academic circles. But this achievement did not come on a silver platter for the youngest vice chancellor in Uganda. Stephen Isabalija, now the vice chancellor of Victoria University, has a history of determination and hard work.

Everything around him exudes humility. “I prefer to be humble and simple. Wherever God sends me, I will go,” Isabalija says  Mother’s lessons  Isabalija’s humility dates far back to his childhood. Nurtured by his mother, the late Lorraine Wakko, who gave up everything to see her children grow into respectable people, he quickly confesses that all he is today is because of his mother’s hard-work and selfl essness, and it is not hard to notice this for, every time he talks about his mother, he gets emotional.

He does not look a rushed fellow, yet he is a great timekeeper. His mother ran a canteen she had opened at St. Leo’s College Kyegobe in 1984, for so many years. In other words, Isabalija was exposed to business at a young age. He started doing business at the age of seven helping his mother run the canteen. On Mondays and Thursdays, he would run it until 10:00am in the morning when his mother would come back from shopping, to restock the canteen. It had become a norm that he would be late for school on such days, an issue which his teachers understood. But, he was a good and likeable pupil.

He would always fetch water for his mother at night, and despite being sickly he still did it. Isabalija showed his academic prowess right after completing his A’level studies at Makerere College School, when he concurrently pursued a degree at Makerere University and a diploma in business studies at Makerere University Business School. This is because he was doing a flat course at Makerere in commerce and wanted to supplement it with an accounts course, which he had missed. With infl uence from his uncle who was an accounts teacher, he always knew he would be a businessman.

His dream was to be a banker and he is living it as he is a director of Uganda Development Bank. In 1999, Isabalija got his fi rst job and earned sh40,000 a month at Taco Flight Service. But the next job was way over the top because he was earning $1,200 (about sh3m) at DANIDA. “At Taco Flight Service, I was in accounts and I loved my job. It was a much needed opportunity to join the job market.

The two months I spent there opened my eyes and made me realise that business needed extra devotion. If I had despised my fi rst job, I would not have been able to move ahead,” he adds. With this experience he made up his mind never to settle for less after reading his favourite book, Who Moved My Cheese.

The book is a simple story that reveals profound truths about change that gives people and organisations a quick and easy way to succeed in changing times. Hisdecision to join the teaching profession was a bit funny, explains Isabalija. He had always asked his professor, Wasswa Balunywa, for an opportunity to allow him pass on to students what he had extensively researched on his own. 

Golden chance 

During one of his lectures in 2005, Balunywa asked him if he was ready to step in for him for a few minutes, an opportunity he quickly jumped onto. Balunywa introduced this PhD holder as his assistant lecturer and since then, he has never looked back. He was later taken on as a lecturer, went for further studies and now heads a university in the city. Back in time, he was known as ‘Balunywa’s boy’ for his closeness to Balunywa. In 2006/2007 he completed his PhD in a record two years and nine months.

On this academic journey he managed to balance his work, education and family life. “Education is one of the arms of creating change in society and this was a great Mother’s lessons Golden chance Member Board of Trustees, Christian Discipleship opportunity for me to create change,” he says. He says Victoria University is a baby which must be nurtured. “The university owners gave us the freedom to operate and we have no interferences in our operations,” he says.

He is convinced that one of the greatest tasks ahead at Victoria University is to invest in practical higher education, grounded in research and innovation. He strongly believes that it is not right for anyone to ever settle for less. He is known by his senior colleagues at the university as

Fact File

Academic journey

  •  PhD, public policy (International Development), 2008 to 2011 (Southern University A & M, Louisiana, USA.
  • MBA, finance and accounting, 2002–2004, Makerere University.
  • Bachelor of Commerce/Accounting, 1997-2001, Makerere University
  • Diploma, business studies, 1996-1998, Nakawa College of Business studies.
  • A’ level, Makerere College School
  • O’level St.Leo’s College Kyegobe.
  • Primary, Kinyamasika Demonstration School.

Work experience

  •  Board member Uganda Development Bank- Chairman Credit and Risk
  • Board member Uganda Electricity Generation Company
  • Board chairman Dynamic Group Company.
  • Board member, ICT University Foundation
  • Delegate, Uganda Women’s Entrepreneurship Association
  • Board member, ICT Centre, Makerere University Business School
  • Member Board of Trustees, Christian Discipleship Ministries International

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