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Kevin Bartkovich

Instructor Kevin Bartkovich at Christ School

"If you pay attention and keep your hearts open, you will have the opportunity to make a difference."

When Math Instructor Kevin Bartkovich and his wife, JD, arrived in Bundibugyo, in the farthest reaches of Uganda, the leading natural resource was despair.

No electricity. No phones. No schools. Plumbing was a luxury; the internet, a fantasy. There was one road in and one road out, and if you were lucky, you were on the latter.

That was 20 years ago. In September, Bartkovich was back in Bundibugyo, surveying a different place from the one he and JD first laid eyes on in 1999. He was there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Christ School Bundibugyo, a faith-based school he helped build from nothing. He shared the story of how that came to be with inductees of Exeter’s Cum Laude Society in the fall.

“I was newly married and doing cool stuff as a math teacher at North Carolina School for Science and Math, and I felt I was at the height of my profession,” he told the students. “Teaching the best and the brightest, I was working with colleagues to write innovative textbooks, training teachers at other schools, speaking at conferences. Yet this question was nagging at me: ‘Is this it? Is this all there is?’

There are many forms your service can take; I chose to go down as far as I could and to be proximate to the poorest of the poor, past the end of the road, a true outpost on the edge."

”It was during this time of self-reflection that Bartkovich received a letter from an old friend inviting him to come to Africa to help open a secondary school. “JD said, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’ and I said, ‘No way,’ but six months later, there we were, leaving our possessions and our income and moving to this place called Bundibugyo.”

Bartkovich recounted to the Cum Laude Society the difficulties the founders faced. The region, straddling the equator on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, was a literal war zone. Corruption was rampant. An education was an extravagance few could attain, because it meant sending Bundibugyo’s youth out of the region. 

In a year, the Bartkoviches and the other founders had managed to build a classroom, a dorm and a kitchen and stake out the school compound. The first school year ended with 25 students — half the number at the start — and only one other teacher, but they persevered. By the time the Bartkoviches left Uganda, 10 years later, the school had grown to six grades, 26 teachers and 350 students. 

Instructor Kevin Bartkovich celebrates the 20th anniversary of Christ School

Today, it thrives. Bartkovich found during his reunion in September that the school’s graduates hold leadership positions throughout the region. One just finished his medical degree and is beginning his residency. Four others are now teaching at the school. “A doctor in Bundibugyo told me of a recent meeting with the district hospital nurses. While they were talking, he asked them where they had done their schooling,” Bartkovich said. “All of them had attended Christ School.”

Bartkovich has been at Exeter ever since leaving Uganda. Since 2010, he has lived in and served as dorm head in Ewald. In 2018, he assumed leadership of the Anja S. Greer Conference on Mathematics and Technology, the popular summer weeklong teachers institute. He and JD have five children: Joe ’16, Louisa ’18, twins Nate ’23 and Sav ’23, and Lexi. Having learned in Uganda that “there is always room for one more,” they also are foster parents (“eight kids and counting”).

Bartkovich closed his remarks to the Cum Laude Society inductees with a call to action:

“There are many forms your service can take; I chose to go down as far as I could and to be proximate to the poorest of the poor, past the end of the road, a true outpost on the edge. For you it might not be about going remote in geography, but in terms of resources, there are many communities that are ‘remote.’ ... You are an incredibly talented group of young people. If you pay attention and keep your hearts open, you will have the opportunity to make a difference. Where will your journey take you?“

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2020 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.