It was time for everyone to go home, but no one moved a muscle. It took 30 hug- and tear-filled minutes before the building finally started to clear out.
The students at the South Korean alternative school had felt love and friendship from the visiting Mercer University students and faculty, and they didn’t want their time together to end, said Dr. Sinjae Hyun, professor of biomedical engineering in Mercer’s School of Engineering.
The University planned more than a dozen Mercer On Mission (MOM) service-learning experiences to locations around the world this summer, each with different participants, goals and purposes. This was the fourth year a group traveled to South Korea, which is Dr. Hyun’s “mother country.”
He and English Language Institute professor Lisa Kang took 15 students there for three-and-a-half weeks. The trip was open to students of any major.
“So far, it’s a manageable and successful program. Satisfaction is high,” Dr. Hyun said. “Our students represented Mercer well in spirit to the school and community.”
In preparation for the trip, students attended classes on the Mercer campus for two weeks. Once in South Korea, they worked with about 50 students at Drim School, a weekday boarding school for North Korean refugee children that is located about 60 miles south of Seoul.
Dr. Hyun said many of these children have been through traumatic situations. Some come to the school with behavior issues, difficulty communicating because of language barriers and no prior schooling.
The Mercer students and faculty taught the Drim students English and robotics, spending about eight hours a day with them and staying at the school at night.
In South Korea, children must have English language skills to get into the regular school system, Dr. Hyun said. Some of the children only knew how to say hello when the Mercer group arrived, but they were counting to 100, putting words into sentences and making jokes by the end of the three weeks, said sophomore Jordan Brewton and junior Ethan Stokes, both biomedical engineering majors.
During Sarah Littleton’s second trip to South Korea with Mercer On Mission, the senior mechanical engineering major focused mostly on robotics and planned daily activities for the children using the Lego Mindstorms system. The lessons culminated with a robotics competition themed around soccer and sumo wrestling, she said.
Dr. Hyun said he sees the schoolchildren change and grow every year he returns to South Korea. For instance, one student came to Drim School only knowing the words yes and no. This year, he was eager to talk to the professor and give him hugs.
“Our program affects people, those who need love. They appreciate our service there,” Dr. Hyun said.
Brewton said he didn’t expect to develop such close relationships with the children, and he loved the experience of teaching them and putting resources together to make the concepts understandable.
Another aspect of the trip involved the Mercer students and faculty working with a human rights organization to conduct public surveys. They created posters with questions and asked community members to place their answers on the boards. This provided the MOM participants with better insight into Korean perspectives, Littleton said.
The Mercer On Mission participants and Drim students also learned about 3-D scanning, modeling and printing at a 3-D innovation center. They created 3-D face models for a nearby center for the blind, and the Drim students will create more models on their own in the future.
“They’ve received support from the outside, and this is the first time (Drim students) went out to share their talent with other people,” Dr. Hyun said. “That’s what Mercer On Mission spirit is … it goes around the world and spreads.”
The 3-D project was an extension of Dr. Hyun’s project with the Georgia Academy for the Blind. In May, he and a team of engineering students created 3-D printed yearbooks for the academy’s graduating seniors.
In addition, the MOM participants spent time in Seoul, and they took field trips with the Korean students to Army and Navy bases. They were able to ride in Army tanks and see Navy ships and technology.
Dr. Hyun hopes that Mercer and Drim students can travel outside South Korea together to do similar community service in the future. He dreams of doing work in a unified Korea one day.