Mercer On Mission engages students in 'experiential learning' projects around the world.
William Underwood, president of Mercer University
William Underwood, president of Mercer University

It’s hard to say whether Mercer University‘s international outreach program, known as “Mercer On Mission,” owes more to the arrival on campus of a new president or the friendship that developed between two members of its staff.

Since William Underwood became president in 2006 the university has taken off in a variety of ways. Its attendance has grown to 8,600 students, it has added doctoral programs in six fields, new campuses in Columbus and Savannah, received numerous recognition awards and a variety of eye-popping grants including funding to support research through the Georgia Research Alliance, a chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and not least, an NCAA intercollegiate football team.

But don’t discount the rapport between Craig McMahan, dean of chapel and university minister, and Ha Vo, who holds associate professor posts in both the School of Medicine where he is a research scientist and a member of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Craig McMahan, university minister
Craig McMahan, university minister

Through the combined efforts of these three they launched the Mercer On Mission program, a blend of study abroad and service learning, that is sending this summer 181 students and 37 faculty members to 11 sites in South America, Asia and Africa from May-August.

Dr. Vo is the son of a Vietnamese soldier who fought alongside U.S. troops and suffered the consequences for deciding not to evacuate his country in 1975 because he didn’t want to abandon his parents. After the war the family eked out a poor existence in central Vietnam where his family was banished.

And Dr. McMahan, whose relations with both Mr. Underwood and Dr. Vo have been responsible for his involvement in programs around the world, highlights the program’s principle that serving one’s fellow man embodies the tangible form of “experiential learning.”

During a telephone interview with Global Atlanta from the airport in Quito, Ecuador, where he was waiting on a return flight to Atlanta, Dr. McMahan recalled being summoned to Mr. Underwood’s office. Both were relatively new to the Macon campus and Mr. Underwood wanted to know what were his responsibilities.

“Well, I’d prepared for this question and I had a pretty good list ready,” he said, “but that wasn’t what he wanted.” Instead, he was told to prepare “an experiential learning program” enabling students to travel abroad while providing useful services.

“I said, ‘I will give it my best shot,” Dr. McMahan recalled. But from the president’s perspective, “a best shot,” wasn’t good enough.

New Limbs for Vietnamese Victims

A somewhat perplexed Dr. McMahan put together programs for Brazil, Guatemala and Kenya telling Global Atlanta that “they weren’t very impressive. The best was distributing mosquito netting to prevent malaria in Kenya.”

Dr. Ha Vo

It was thanks to Dr. Vo that the program went from the mundane to the exceptional. While growing up in Vietnam he had witnessed the dreadful legacy of the war with undetected and unexploded ordnance littered throughout the countryside that unexpectedly claimed the lives and limbs of fellow Vietnamese.

 The family eventually came to the U.S. in 1990 due to the intercession of an American comrade who had fought with his father and who sponsored their arrival in South Florida.

Growing up in the U.S., Dr. Vo took on menial jobs eventually working in a restaurant where he became a chef and put himself through college where he received degrees in medicine, podiatric medicine and surgery, manufacturing and a doctorate in biomedical engineering.

All the while, he thought about his fellow Vietnamese who had lost limbs to the land mines and how he could help them. It was at Mercer that he began to fabricate high-quality, low-cost prosthetics with a universal socket, a pylon that serves as a leg bone and a foot. His design for the prosthetics feature a “v-cut” in the back, which enables patients to adjust the size of the socket opening as the size and shape their stumps change, making them adaptable to a wide variety of recipients.

Mercer On Mission in Vietnam

While Dr. McMahan was working out in the college gym one day with Dr. Vo nearby, he told him of his challenges meeting Mr. Underwood’s directive with quality programs that provided the “experiential” element going beyond a touristic experience.

It was at that moment that the Vietnam program to provide the victims with the prosthetics was born. Now in its eighth year, a team of 23 biomedical engineering students, two graduate assistants and four faculty members are to leave June 1 to work at clinics provided for permanent use in the cities of Ben Tre, Can Tho and Hau Giang in central Vietnam where Dr. Vo recalled seeing so many of the victims.

This summer the team expects to fit their 5,000th patient with Dr. Vo’s patented Universal Socket Prosthetic. Already the program has received widespread acclaim. At the onset only 38 patients were provided with the protheses, and this year the aim is to fit more than 500 patients, a sizable number but far from what is needed to treat to the 2,000 patients who step on land mines every year, according to Dr. McMahan.

A new start with a new leg
A new start with a new leg

But Mr. Underwood told Global Atlanta during an interview in his office on the Mercer campus in Macon that even President Carter, who gave this year’s commencement address, had challenged the program to fit 10,000 patients.

“He’s always pushing us to do something bigger,” Mr. Underwood said of the former president who also is a member of the university’s board of trustees.

In August of last year, there was a glimmer that relations with Vietnam would improve, though the recent visit of President Barack Obama was hardly expected. Drs. Vo and McMahan attended a celebration of the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the U.S. as invited guests of Pham Quang Vinh, Vietnam’s ambassador to the U.S.

Dr. McMahan was quoted at the time as saying that a small number of guests had been invited to attend the event at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington consisting of those “who had made a substantial difference in healing the wounds of war and building new foundations for peace and prosperity between the two nations.”

Earlier in the year, the program received a “Certificate of Operation” acknowledging the government’s recognition and approval of the work being done by the program and granting the waiver of program-related taxes and fees, providing access to banking privileges and allowing purchases such as a vehicle allowing the fitters to travel among several clinics.

Before the year was out, Mr. Underwood himself participated in the program. In addition to fitting the prosthetics, he also sought out organizations with which to cooperate and expand the program’s current reach.

At the moment, it currently collaborates with Caritas, a Catholic agency in Ho Chi Minh City, and the Can Tho Orthopedics and Rehabilitation Center in Can Tho, which is operated by Dr. Nugyen Quoc Lap, a Vietnamese government official.

Helping Gold Miners in Ecuador 

While the Vietnam program has been widely publicized, Mercer On Mission has taken on many new forms. Dr. McMahan was returning from a project in Ecuador that seeks to help gold miners and populations in areas where the mining is taking place from being subject to poisonous vapors related to mercury exposure. 

Miners extract gold from mountains of ore by mechanically crushing it and then mixing it into the pulverized rock. The Mercer On Mission program successfully uses retorts, airtight vessels, to contain the vapors that emanate from the process.

There are millions of unregulated gold miners around the world, and the inhabitants of their communities suffer from slurred speech, trouble swallowing and walking, often stumbling and experiencing uncontrollable trembling. The retorts capture the noxious fumes, helping to control these negative responses to the mercury-related vapors.

As Mercer On Mission has expanded to 11 sites on three continents, it has stuck to its original purpose defined as being “a unique blend of study abroad and service-learning that provides life-changing experiences for students through academic instruction, cultural immersion, meaningful service and spiritual reflection.”

[pullquote]“Internationalism is the centerpiece for our university. Our goal is to have every undergraduate involved in one of the university’s international programs.”[/pullquote]

While the service component remains at the heart of Mercer’s culture, Mr. Underwood said that the international component also is critical. “Internationalism is the centerpiece for our university,” he said. “Our goal is to have every undergraduate involved in one of the university’s international programs.”

Other programs in the works include providing educational resources in Belize, setting up medical clinics in Cambodia, clean water projects in Madagascar, small business development in Rwanda, racial tolerance and anti-bullying programs in South Africa, English classes and robotics training in North Korea, providing services to former street children in Tanzania, and installing solar-powdered lights in Peru.

He recently took this message to a luncheon of the Consular Corps in Atlanta seeking suggestions for projects that would lead to Mercer On Mission involvement, especially in developing nations.

As with that exchange in the Macon gym between Dr. McMahan and Dr. Vo, ideas can spring from anywhere. Mr. Underwood added that he solicits challenges from all quarters. “Contact Mercer to help with specific problems,” he said. “Students develop a solution, test it and experience the positive impact on the lives of people in a community. What’s a more inspiring learning experience than that?”

Dr. McMahan stressed the importance of working with the leadership in the different communities in which they are involved. “We always are invited in, and we know that one sized shoe doesn’t fit everyone.”

Meanwhile, the word is out and students are flocking to the college in numbers greater than ever before.

Anecdotal reports are that many of the students’ experiences through Mercer On Mission are “life changing” as the program would like.

Further proof of the the campus’ international orientation is that of the 26 graduates this year admitted to the the highly prestigious Phi Beta Kappa 16 cited either a major or minor in Spanish, often as a double major, one in French and two in Latin. Majors also included international affairs, global health studies, intercultural studies, psychology and political science, not to mention those that graduated with degrees in biochemistry, biology, mathematics and, yes, journalism.

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