posted Jun 15, 2012 in ACADEMICS
During 10 days in Panama, the student winners of an innovative competition at McPherson College planted the seeds for future partnerships with the college, grew together as a group and blossomed as the experience directed their lifes' paths.
For the second year in a row, McPherson College offered students the opportunity in November to enter the "Global Enterprise Challenge", in which groups of students research a foreign country and envision a sustainable venture to help the people of that country. The winning team receives scholarships and the opportunity to travel to the country at college expense to explore how the idea might work on the ground and to help serve in the country. The first year of the challenge focused on Haiti.
This year, the winners of the challenge traveled to Panama May 22 to 31 as a result of their concept "Esperanza: Cultivating with Compassion."
Jacob Patrick, sophomore, Elizabeth, Colo.; Lara Neher, freshman, Grundy Center, Iowa; Emily James, junior, Westminster, Colo.; Sarah Neher, senior, Rochester, Minn. and Tabitha McCullough, senior, Hill City, Kan.; envisioned establishing a grade school in Panama with a circular model. This means that the Panamanian community would help sponsor promising students to receive higher education. In return, those students would commit to returning to the community as a teacher to help the next generation.
As they explored the feasibility of the concept during the trip, the team visited and volunteered for a number of charitable and educational organizations in and around Boquete, Panama. These included the town's public library, Casa Esperanza – an elementary school for indigenous children, Loco por Leer or "Crazy for Reading" – a literacy project for the youth of indigenous people, Sowing Seeds of Love – a program to help women and children of the area, the Boquete Mission of Panama Christian Evangelism and the Rotary Club of Boquete.
Dr. Kori Gregg, executive director of entrepreneurship, said working with these organizations could form the basis for extended relationships in the area. In addition, she's pursuing other opportunities MC could get involved with. Among the possibilities are assisting a social entrepreneur in creating smokeless woodburning stoves to help indigenous people avoid respiratory problems, helping the Boquete library receive soccer equipment as a reward to motivate children to read, or assisting Casa Esperanza with a regular seminar to help local teachers learn classroom management techniques.
"We'll be going back," she said. "There's no question."
Dr. Jonathan Frye, professor of natural sciences, was the advisor to the group, traveled with them to Panama, and said he was impressed with what they did with their time in the country.
"Our students were exemplary ambassadors for McPherson College," he said. "They engaged consistently and positively with the Panamanian people that we met, even when that was difficult due to the language barrier."
McCullough said she was struck by the contrasts in lifestyle among those living in Panama – there's both great privilege and great poverty.
"It was pretty crazy seeing a home made of tarps and then a million-dollar mansion right across the street," she said.
This journey will likely influence the way she chooses to spend her career, McCullough said. She now holds degrees in both theatre and teaching from McPherson College. Working with children who are passionate about learning and who bonded with them so quickly has started her leaning toward education. Seeing kids who will trek through any weather to learn, getting hugged around the legs by a child with a big smile – this is why she wanted to be a teacher in the first place.
"It made me realize how much I love kids," she said. "It really impassioned me, knowing how important it is to have someone who cares. It really forced me to think about my future – where I want to go and what I want to do. And ultimately what I want to do with my life."
For Neher, going to Panama reassured her that helping others was going to be an important part of her life, but it was also significant for the connections it forged among the students who went.
"I'd known the students before, but nothing like going to another country and spending time with them," she said. "The six of us have an experience now that really only the six of us have had and that we will carry with us beyond MC."