Children in the South Korea alternative school faced a language barrier as well as an emotional one. But after 2½ weeks with Mercer students and faculty, their comfort and confidence in interacting with others grew.

During the sixth Mercer On Mission trip to South Korea, the Mercer group worked with 36 kids at Drim School, which is 60 miles south of capital city Seoul. The students there are North Korean refugees or the children of North Korean refugees living in China, and their backgrounds and past traumatic experiences can make it hard for them to assimilate into the local culture, said biomedical engineering professor Dr. Sinjae Hyun, who initiated the program in 2015. 

In South Korea, children must have English language skills to get into the traditional school system. Mandarin is the primary language for many of the Drim School students since they spent much of their childhood in China. 

Dr. Hyun and faculty members Dr. Donald Ekong, Lisa Kang and Dr. Scott Schultz accompanied 21 Mercer students to South Korea, where they taught English and engineering skills to the Korean students. They spent a week prior to the trip preparing lesson plans. 

“Just getting to meet them and learn about them was such a great experience,” said Derrick Swinford, who graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in May. “But then the teaching itself was so much fun because every single student every single day came in wanting to learn and happy to be there. By the end, we all felt like one happy family.”

Mercer and Drim School students hold a banner that says "One Korea Creative Engineering Camp with Mercer University: Imagining a Reunited Korea."
The Mercer and Drim School groups are shown together. The banner says “One Korea Creative Engineering Camp with Mercer University: Imagining a Reunited Korea.” Photo courtesy Dr. Sinjae Hyum

Each Mercer student taught English lessons designed for one of six skill levels, as well as activities for one of three engineering programs: app design and development, Lego robotics, and 3D scanning and printing. 

Kang, academic adviser and assessment coordinator for the School of Business and former faculty member for Mercer’s English Language Institute, led the English portion of the program. She provided guidance to the Mercer students on how to most effectively teach English as a second language, “break the ice” early on with the Korean students and keep them engaged. The daily instruction created an English language foundation that the children can continue to build upon. 

“Our goal is to teach them English as a foreign language, but at the same time, it’s more exposure to the English culture and the language itself to get them more comfortable interacting with native speakers,” Kang said. “Our Mercer students stay on campus with the North Korean refugee children. That two weeks of time is a lot of exposure for our students as well as the Drim School students. Building that relationship helps the (Korean) students to learn English and our Mercer students to learn about Korean culture.”

Swinford taught the first level of English lessons and helped students get to know colors, animals, actions and nature. The last day, they did a “build your own zoo” where the kids chose paper cutouts of animals for their paper zoo and described them in English, he said.

“By the end, I was really proud of my students because they were able to converse pretty comfortably,” said Kendall Ross, a sophomore journalism and criminal justice double-major, who taught English level three. “I was really proud of the progress they made in such a short period of time. It was really nice to see as a first-time teacher.”

Dr. Schultz, senior associate dean of the School of Engineering, spearheaded the Lego robotics lessons, in which the participants built robots and then programmed them to go through challenges like an obstacle course and robot wrestling. 

“The goal isn’t to have them become expert programmers but expose them to technology,” he said.

The 3D printing element, led by Dr. Hyun, was a little different from previous trips, when participants worked on 3D face models for visually impaired individuals. This year, the Mercer and Drim School students collaborated with a South Korea nongovernmental organization on a project called Remembering Korean War Heroes. They created plaques with 3D faces for 11 Korean veterans and presented them to those individuals during a ceremony at the South Korean Congress.

“They were very appreciative of us remembering their sacrifice,” Dr. Hyun said. “During the meeting, those veterans told our students thank you for remembering them. That was a very touching moment we had.”

In addition, they created two plaques for American veterans of the Korean War: Dr. Schultz’s father-in-law, Conard Tharpe, and the late Dr. Paul Cable, a former Mercer professor. The plaque honoring Dr. Cable’s service will be presented to his two sons during a Mercer On Mission program at 11 a.m. Aug. 25 in the Presidents Dining Room in the University Center on the Macon campus.

The plaque project will continue from the Mercer campus, as Dr. Hyun and his students make plaques of appreciation for Korean War soldiers who died or are still missing. In his research, Dr. Hyun found that more than 640 Georgians died in the Korean War, and 150 of those are Missing in Action (MIA). The plan is to make 10 plaques during the fall semester for Georgia MIAs. Students will select the soldiers from a database and begin work after receiving permission from family members to use their pictures.

The app design and development class was new for this year’s trip and led by Dr. Ekong, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. The Drim School students created simple smartphone apps and used their English skills to give short presentations on them. 

“The Mercer students on my team, I was impressed with their ability,” Dr. Ekong said. “When they were teaching the class, they gave me feedback and I could see that they had taken initiative on how to make this class move forward.”

Ross said the trip gave her a chance to dabble in coding – which has always interested her – and do something outside her major. She helped the Drim students create games, functional flashlights and a sound board during the app design class. She incorporated elements into the lessons that interested the students, like anime, to keep them engaged.

The Mercer group is pictured at Busan Palace, South Korea.
The Mercer group is pictured at Bulguksa temple. Photo courtesy Derrick Swinford

Outside their time at the Drim School, the Mercer group toured some museums, enjoyed local cuisine, went to the beach in Busan, met officials at the capitol, and visited the Hana Foundation, which supports North Korean refugees. They also visited two Korean Army bases and attended a ceremony for the Army’s excavation project to find the remains of Korean War soldiers.

“Getting more of that Korean culture and opportunities to explore and experience that culture … was really a valuable experience for the students and ourselves,” Kang said. “A lot of our students talk about Mercer On Mission being their reason. It’s a decision-maker for them to choose Mercer. I think it’s the same for a lot of employees here, myself included. To be able to have the opportunity like this to make a difference, be the change for the global community, that’s huge.”

Swinford decided to go on the Mercer On Mission trip because of his Korean roots – his maternal grandmother was born and raised in Busan – and the chance to make a difference. 

“I wanted to help give back to a world that has given me so much,” he said. “I wanted to be able to go somewhere where I could do good and use some things I had been learning and given in my life in a positive way.”

Ross, who received funding for the trip through the Gilman Scholarship, said she has a big passion for Korean culture and has been studying the language for four years. The Mercer On Mission trip allowed her to have a study-abroad experience while being supported by a group. She enjoyed experiencing Korea’s culture of community and togetherness.

Ross got to practice her Korean language skills a lot while the group was sight-seeing. As one of the few Mercer students who knew Korean, she sometimes served as the representative who spoke for the group. It was an experience that challenged her and got her to step outside her comfort zone, she said. 

“It was my first time abroad and the first time I feel I’ve made a difference in a community in a really tangible way,” Ross said. “I found my way of life changing in that small amount of time. I want to push myself further and travel to other countries and even do work there. It kind of certified that I want to work with minority populations and help people that are less fortunate than me.”

Feature photo: The Mercer group is pictured at the top of N Seoul Tower. Photo courtesy Derrick Swinford


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