A team of Mercer University students and faculty are on their way to Rwanda for the sole Mercer On Mission experience of 2020. The summer programs were canceled due to COVID-19, but special precautions and regulations have made this trip possible.
About 20 Mercer students and three faculty advisers — University Minister Dr. Craig McMahan, Associate Professor of Marketing Dr. Etienne Musonera and Dean of the School of Business Dr. Julie Petherbridge — will spend about two weeks in the capital city of Kigali and return to the United States on Dec. 17.
Dr. Musonera initiated the Mercer On Mission Rwanda program as a way to continue work he is passionate about and that is personal to him. Dr. Musonera has lived in the United States since 1985, but he is originally from Rwanda. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
While in Rwanda, the Mercer team teaches entrepenurial skills to widows and orphans of the genocide, so they can support themselves by running their own businesses. Working together in groups, the Mercerians and Rwandans develop plans for improving the businesses and making them more profitable. The business owners can then pass on their knowledge to other Rwandans and inspire them.
“Those skills really help them to become self-sufficient,” Dr. Musonera said. “When they see the university and students, they think the world has not forgotten them. So far, it’s been very beneficial, especially for these women. They have challenges, but they can become opportunities.”
Mercer students and faculty partnered with the Avega organization for the first five years of the Mercer On Mission Rwanda program, and this will be their second year working with MindLeaps, an organization that helps youth improve their performance in school and gain work-ready skills. They will work with 48 Rwandans, more than 30 of them women.
“We’ll be meeting with some of the same people this year,” Dr. McMahan said. “We’ve got a great group of students, and we will work specifically with them using their skill sets. They will become the trainers for groups of potential entrepreneurs.”
Dr. Musonera said it’s a real learning experience for the Mercer students, as they overcome challenges like language barriers and discover how to teach business skills in a way that anyone can understand, but the participants always love it.
The logistics of hosting this trip amid COVID-19 were challenging, and Dr. Musonera said he considered canceling it. However, the students were resilient and pushed him to stay the course. Previous Mercer On Mission Rwanda participants told them about their positive experiences, and they wanted to be able to continue the work.
“It’s the desire to keep doing what’s good, which is serving those people and empowering them,” Dr. Musonera said.
Rwanda has come up with a number of protections and has an efficient COVID-19 testing program. The country is not on the high-risk list and has done a good job managing COVID-19, Dr. McMahan said.
The students and faculty will be tested on Mercer’s campus right before they leave the United States. They will be tested again after arriving in Rwanda and quarantine for one day until their test results come back. MOM participants will continue to follow safety precautions such as social distancing and wearing masks while in Rwanda, and they will be tested once more before returning home.
“We’re excited to be able to travel,” Dr. McMahan said. “This was our one little candle in the darkness. It’s a great experience for students.”