Two separate groups of Mercer University students and faculty traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, this summer. While their missions were different, both teams touched the lives of local residents … and found themselves changed in return.
The first Mercer On Mission (MOM) trip to South Africa focused on economic development and was for students in the Mercer Service Scholars program. The 14 rising juniors took classes in the fall and spring to prepare for the three-week trip, said Dr. Linda Brennan, an adjunct instructor and retired professor of management. She and Bob Easter, also an adjunct instructor in the Eugene W. Stetson School of Business and Economics, led the trip.
“I’ve never had a (MOM trip) go so smoothly or be so impactful. The teamwork was outstanding,” Dr. Brennan said. “The students are remarkably conscientious. That goes a long way to contributing to an effective mission trip. They genuinely have a heart for service, and they’re bright and dedicated.”
The students conducted informal seminars for local businessowners at the beginning of each week. They found it challenging to give public speeches to residents who use English as their second language, but it was also empowering for them, Dr. Brennan said. Each student ended up presenting three lectures on basic business principals, said Johna Wright, a psychology major.
They worked with specific clients for the rest of the week. They got to know the businesses, their customers and their strengths and weaknesses, spent a day working in those trades and then offered recommendations and resources for improvement at the end of the week, said Wright and Aditi Dave, a biochemistry major.
In total, the MOM team worked with 20 clients over that three-week period. The owners were so appreciative and thankful, and many said they were already noticing positive changes, Dr. Brennan said. The students will follow up with the clients during the fall semester.
The students helped the businessowners do things like develop websites and Facebook pages, design logos and business cards, create sample books and brochures, implement marketing strategies, and set up bank accounts and basic accounting systems. Wright and Dave worked with a cabinet builder, a construction company and a youth violence prevention nonprofit during the trip.
“It’s a long-term thing that will eventually put them in a much better place than when they started,” Wright said. “If they continue to implement the strategies we outlined for them, it will bring their business to a whole other level.”
Dave said this was her first time visiting a country that’s completely different from America. She saw how important community is to the South African people and how willing they are to help their neighbors. It was interesting to see the similarities and differences between Cape Town and Macon, she said.
“It takes stepping out of your own country and your own community to see how you can help your own community,” Dave said. “Even though the Service Scholars program sends us to Cape Town, it shows us how we can use what we learned in Macon.”
The Mercer students went on educational field trips related to small business resources. They also did excursions related to their own personal interests, including touring a school for the blind, clinic, children’s rehabilitation center and museum, Dr. Brennan said.
“For me, this trip was self-exploration and self-discovery,” said Wright, who is legally blind. “It showed me that I could be a leader in a group of people who are sighted, and that I could give service to other people. I learned how to speak up and accommodate for myself at the same time. I definitely have a goal now to do a lot more traveling for the purpose of volunteering.”
In early June, 13 Mercer students and three faculty members left for the second Cape Town trip, which had an educational focus. This MOM experience has been hosted every other year since 2008.
Dr. Eimad Houry, professor and chair of the Department of International and Global Studies, and Dr. Mary Alice Morgan, senior vice provost for service learning, plan each of the mission projects with Cape Town native Anwar Parker.
Parker also coordinates Mercer’s South Africa Internship Program, which has brought more than 50 Mercer students to Cape Town since 2015 to work with nongovernmental organizations.
During past MOM South Africa trips, participants helped a high school drama club write and perform an original play; developed a leadership and personal development curriculum for a vocational school; trained schools to compete in a debate tournament; and helped teachers improve their classroom skills and lesson plans.
This year, they helped elementary school teachers with math and English lessons in the morning and spent their afternoons preparing 80 students at three high schools for a Model United Nations competition.
The Cape Town students researched the countries and issues, wrote speeches and resolutions, and learned public speaking skills, Dr. Morgan said. Some of the kids reveled in the spotlight, while others grew from shy to confident. Many said the MOM group changed their lives by giving them this experience.
Junior Alyssa Fortner said the high school students improved their self-esteem and gained skills that will help them personally and academically.
The Mercer students were initially skeptical about whether this project could have any real, sustainable impact, Dr. Houry said. By the end, they saw the difference it had made.
“It’s a transformative experience for an overwhelming majority of them,” he said. “It is the kind of experience that will affect their way of thinking about the world for the foreseeable future.”
By being exposed to a new sociopolitical situation, the Mercer students were able to reflect on their own circumstances with greater clarity, Dr. Morgan said.
“They, themselves, describe it not just as eye-opening but literally life-changing in a sense that they’ll never go back to being the same,” she said.
The Mercer students took a full-semester course in the spring so they would be in the right frame of mind for this service experience. They studied the complex issues and challenges that South Africa and its residents face, Dr. Houry said. The students were culturally sensitive and confident while taking on leadership roles during the trip, Dr. Morgan said.
“It’s not just that they have a heart for service but that they’re capable of stepping in,” Dr. Houry said.
Some past MOM South Africa participants have found the experience so enriching that they have returned to Cape Town to participate in the internship program.
Fortner, a double-major in international affairs and global development, was accepted into both the Mercer On Mission South Africa program and the internship program this summer. After the MOM trip concluded, she stayed in Cape Town for eight weeks to work with a community development humanitarian organization. She helped fundraise, coordinate social media, update websites, create informational videos and provide educational sessions for students.
Before this summer, Fortner had never traveled abroad. She said being immersed in a new culture was a “genuine and authentic experience.” She would like to return to South Africa next summer to work with the education system.
“When you go and do the work, you realize how slow development can be,” she said. “It happens very much in increments. You don’t just go in and change the world, but kind of learn to stick with it. You have to work toward the end product.”