Over a two-week period, a team of 15 Mercerians touched the lives of more than 700 Dominican students. Earlier this summer, professors Dr. Jose Pino and Dr. Bradley Lian chaperoned 13 Mercer University students to the Dominican Republic as the final trip for the Mercer Service Scholars program.
Each year, a small group of honors students is chosen for the Service Scholars program, which was established in 2009. The students take classes as a cohort, participate in regular leadership training and community service, go on an international service-learning trip, and design and carry out their own service projects as seniors. Students in the final cohort, who will graduate in 2025, traveled to the Dominican Republic in May for a Mercer On Mission trip as part of the program.
The Service Scholars model has been so successful that the University is now redesigning the Honors Program to incorporate much of its curriculum and goals, said Dr. Mary Alice Morgan, professor of English and former senior vice provost for service-learning.
“Mercer Service Scholars program has played a critical, early role in modeling and implementing Mercer’s motto that ‘At Mercer, everyone majors in changing the world,’ and it has been a true honor and pleasure to work with our cohorts of dedicated and creative ‘change-makers,’” Dr. Morgan said.
Dr. Pino, associate professor of Spanish in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Lian, associate professor of community medicine in the School of Medicine, led a group of Service Scholars to the Dominican Republic in 2019 in partnership with Mercer’s College of Education. The participants visited health care facilities, orphanages and local schools; taught STEM-related courses; and worked with local teachers on professional development. At the request of Universidad Central del Este (UCE) and the Secretary of Education at San Pedro de Macorís, another group of Service Scholars visited in May to conduct English language workshops with students of all ages and school faculty, Dr. Lian said.
The Mercer students spent the spring semester preparing for the trip during a course with Dr. Pino. They researched Dominican culture and issues, learned about teaching methodologies and pedagogies, and developed lesson plans on topics suggested by their Dominican partners. Once in the Dominican Republic, they had to quickly adapt their plans to fit the classroom capabilities and environments, Dr. Pino said.
“There’s a lot of on-the-fly thinking from our students,” Dr. Lian said. “We’re really happy that the Service Scholars were so flexible and so creative in changing plans. That would happen pretty much daily.”
The Mercer team worked with students in seven elementary or secondary schools in San Pedro de Macorís, as well as health and social sciences students and the academic and administrative team at UCE. They visited three or four sites each day and went to most of the locations three or four times over the two-week period. They interacted with as many as 190 students at one location.
Working in groups of two to four in the classrooms, Mercer students led the lessons and were assisted by 10 bilingual UCE students, Dr. Pino said. Only one Mercer student was fluent in Spanish, and all of the Service Scholars improved upon their Spanish skills through this firsthand experience.
“The reception that we got from the staff at the schools was so warm and inviting that it definitely put a lot of our anxieties at rest,” said rising junior Reema Chande, a psychology major. “A lot of us were nervous about teaching English in a language that we didn’t know.”
The Service Scholars incorporated a lot of games and fun activities into their lesson plans, which the students and their teachers loved, Dr. Lian said. Chande said the lessons were divided into the parts of speech and also focused on vocabulary and common errors when learning English. Rising junior Shailyn Frazier, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, said the workshops with the UCE students focused more on conversational skills. The Service Scholars also worked on boosting the Dominican students’ confidence in their language skills.
“The (Dominican schools) loved it. They wanted more. That’s why it was hard when they were saying goodbye, because they made connections and ties,” Dr. Pino said.
Dr. Lian said the administration and staff at the schools were supportive and appreciative of the Mercerians’ work. The children were sad to see the Service Scholars leave and sent them off with hugs and small gifts.
“You’re only there for a couple weeks, but you really do have an impact on those kids and faculty at the schools,” Dr. Lian said. “On the other hand, the faculty and students at the schools really had an impact on our students. I think it will have a lasting impact on our students. The students go down there and they do Mercer On Mission because they want to change the world. They come back realizing the world changed them. A lot of our students are reconsidering their career options.”
The experience confirmed some students’ future careers and caused others to want to change their path to become teachers, physicians, health professionals or community leaders, Dr. Pino said.
Generally a shy person, Frazier said the trip helped grow her confidence. Once she arrived in the Dominican Republic, she felt a change in herself and became more outspoken. She gained a new perspective of the world and was inspired by the family-oriented culture.
“I knew cultural competence was very important, but I never realized the impact it was going to have on me,” she said. “Prior to going, my mom told me I’d come back a different person. I didn’t expect it to have the impact that it had on me. I learned things about myself that I didn’t know.”
In addition to the English lessons, the Mercer team helped UCE finish a grant proposal to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The students gained practical language experience as they reviewed, edited and translated the document, Dr. Pino said. Five of the Service Scholars were interviewed about the work they were doing on live local TV.
The Mercerians also visited a variety of historic and cultural sites during their trip, including caves, cathedrals, beaches, local markets and Colonial City in Santo Domingo.
“We don’t just want the students to go to a different country, go to a hotel and back to the work site,” Dr. Lian said. “Students need to get out in the community and see the daily life and routines.”
The Service Scholars learned a lot about health care in the Dominican Republic through conversations with residents. Chande, who hopes to go to medical school, said she gained great insight during a conversation in which a UCE staff member detailed her pregnancy journey.
“That was really inspiring to me,” Chande said. “It was one of those touching moments, especially as someone who wants to go into maternal health. It was such an honest moment. It was a very nice perspective to have.”
UCE has expressed interest in expanding its relationship with Mercer. Dr. Pino said he is proposing a new Mercer On Mission trip, beginning in 2024, so the work can continue.
“This is the first time that a Mercer On Mission project served and worked on educational projects in the Dominican Republic,” Dr. Pino said. “The project was an outstanding success, according to comments, interviews and the number of students who wanted to register for our workshops. We achieved our goals and laid a solid foundation for future trips and projects to this area and to UCE.”