Lawyer, philanthropist to receive UW Bothell's 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award

News Release
June 2, 2017
Contact Lisa Hall 425-352-5461 / lhall7@uw.edu  
Lawyer, philanthropist to receive UW Bothell's 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award

Stephen SsemaalaBOTHELL, Washington – A political refugee from Uganda who graduated from the University of Washington Bothell and the UW School of Law is the recipient of the 2017 UW Bothell Distinguished Alumni Award.

Stephen Ssemaala (global studies '03) is honored for distinguished professional achievements and outstanding community service. The award was established in 2000, and the winner is selected by the UW Bothell Alumni Council.

For someone who grew up on a small island in Lake Victoria and who sought asylum in the USA, Ssemaala says it’s amazing that he’s a teacher of American government in Olympia.

The 52-year-old Tumwater man was once a politician in Uganda where he had started an AIDS education organization after his brother died of the disease. But in 1996 he had to flee to avoid persecution from political opponents.

Landing in Washington he worked at a fast food restaurant and a warehouse until he was laid off and offered retraining at Everett Community College. From there he transferred to UW Bothell and was mentored by Alan Wood, a founding faculty member who taught world history. It was Wood who encouraged Ssemaala to apply to the UW Law School.

UW Bothell was a community for him. “I had a lot of support when I had ideas. Professor Wood was more like a father to me,” he said. “When you are there you a part of a big supportive community, no matter where you came from or what your views are.”

After earning his law degree in 2006, Ssemaala became an assistant state attorney general, and since 2012 has been a contracts counsel for the state Department of Social and Health Services in Olympia.

Since 2011, Ssemaala also has been an adjunct instructor at South Puget Sound Community College where he loves teaching the American political system, “which is fascinating compared to other countries. Being a foreigner, coming into a new culture, learning everything and being able to teach American students their own government – interesting,” he said. 

He also started the KamuKamu Learning Foundation to improve schools and provide resources to children in Uganda.

“If they can learn a skill – raise cows, use a computer, at least sew – they may have a chance in life,” he said.

Ssemaala and his wife Harriet have four children, a son who joined the Army after 9-11 and is based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and three daughters. One is a teacher in Burien, one a marketing manager in Washington, D.C., and one a nanny in Seattle.

Ssemaala remains interested in politics, but lost his first bid in 2015 for the Tumwater City Council. Very little in life comes on the first try, he said. “I will try again some day.”

“If you think there’s something you can contribute, you can’t sit back and wait for the other guy to come along,” he said. “We all have to be active participants rather than sitting on the sidelines.”

About UW Bothell: UW Bothell provides access to an exceptional University of Washington education to students in a small campus environment that fosters student achievement. Offering more than 55 undergraduate and graduate degrees, options, certificates and concentrations, UW Bothell builds regional partnerships, inspires change, creates knowledge, shares discoveries and prepares students for leadership in the state of Washington and beyond.