The Mercer team teaches English and engineering to North Korean refugees


Children in the South Korean alternative school faced both a language and an emotional barrier. But after 2½ weeks with Mercer students and faculty, her comfort and confidence in interacting with others grew.

during the sixth Mercer On Mission trip to South Korea, the Mercer group worked with 36 children at the Drim School, which is 60 miles south of the capital, Seoul. The students there are North Korean refugees or the children of North Korean refugees living in China, and their backgrounds and past traumatic experiences can make it difficult for them to assimilate into the local culture, he said biomedical engineering professor dr Sinjae Hyun, who initiated the program in 2015.

In South Korea, children must be proficient in English in order to be accepted into the traditional school system. Mandarin is the primary language for many Drim School students, having spent much of their childhood in China.

dr Hyun and faculty members Dr. Donald Ekong, Lisa Kang and Dr. Scott Schultz accompanied 21 Mercer students to South Korea, where they taught English and technical skills to the Korean students. They spent a week before the trip preparing lesson plans.

“Just meeting them and learning more about them was a great experience,” said Derrick Swinford, who graduated with a mechanical engineering degree in May. “But then the class itself was so much fun because every single student came in every single day, wanted to learn and was happy to be there. In the end we all felt like one happy family.”

The Mercer and Drim School groups are shown together. The banner reads “One Korea Creative Engineering Camp with Mercer University: Imagining a Reunited Korea.” Photo courtesy of Dr. Sinjae Hyum

Each Mercer student taught English classes designed for one of six skill levels, as well as activities for one of three engineering programs: app design and development, Lego robotics, and 3D scanning and printing.

Kang, academic advisor and assessment coordinator for the business school and former faculty member for Mercer’s English Language Institute, led the English part of the program. She guided the Mercer students on how to most effectively teach English as a second language, “break the ice” with Korean students early on, and keep them engaged. Through the daily lessons, an English-language basis was created on which the children can continue to build.

“Our goal is to teach them English as a foreign language, but at the same time it’s more exposure to English culture and the language itself, so they feel more comfortable interacting with native speakers,” Kang said. “Our Mercer students stay on campus with the North Korean refugee children. These two weeks are a lot of stress for our students and the students at Drim School. Building that relationship helps the (Korean) students learn English and our Mercer students learn about Korean culture.”

Swinford taught the first level of English classes, helping students learn about colors, animals, actions, and nature. On the last day they did a ‘build your own zoo’ where the children chose paper cutouts of animals for their paper zoo and described them in English, he said.

“In the end, I was really proud of my students because they were pretty good conversationalists,” said Kendall Ross, a dual major in journalism and criminal justice who taught English at level three. “I was really proud of the progress they made in such a short time. It was really nice to see that as a first time teacher.”

dr Schultz, Associate Dean of the engineering schoolled the Lego robotics class, in which participants built robots and then programmed them to complete challenges such as an obstacle course and robot wrestling.

“The goal isn’t to make them programming experts, it’s to expose them to technology,” he said.

The 3D printing element, led by Dr. Hyun was a little different from previous trips when participants worked on 3D facial models for the visually impaired. This year, students from the Mercer and Drim Schools worked with a South Korean NGO on a project called “Remembering Korean War Heroes.” They created plaques with 3D faces for 11 Korean veterans and presented them to them during a ceremony at the South Korean Congress.

“They were very grateful that we remembered their sacrifice,” said Dr. hyun “During the meeting, these veterans thanked our students for remembering them. That was a very touching moment that we had.”

They also created two memorial plaques for American Korean War veterans: Dr. Schultz’ father-in-law Conard Tharpe and the late Dr. Paul Cable, a former Mercer professor. The plaque in honor of the service of Dr. Cable will be presented to his two sons during a Mercer On Mission program on August 25 at 11 a.m. in the President’s Dining Room at the University Center on the Macon campus.

The plaque project continues on the Mercer campus as Dr. Hyun and his students create plaques recognizing Korean War soldiers who died or are still missing. During his research, Dr. Hyun found that more than 350 Georgians died in the Korean War and 150 of them are considered Missing in Action (MIA). It is planned to make 10 plaques for Georgia MIAs in the fall semester. Students select the soldiers from a database and begin work after receiving permission from family members to use their images.

The App Design and Development class was new for this year’s trip and was led by Dr. Ekong, associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Drim School students created simple smartphone apps and used their English skills to give short presentations about it.

“I was impressed by the skills of the Mercer students on my team,” said Dr. Ekong. “As they taught the class, they gave me feedback and I could see that they had taken the initiative to move this class forward.”

Ross said the trip gave her an opportunity to explore programming – which has always interested her – and do something outside of her major. She helped the Drim students create games, working flashlights, and a soundboard during the app design course. She incorporated elements of what students were interested in, like anime, to keep them engaged.

The Mercer Group is pictured at Busan Palace, South Korea.
The Mercer group is depicted in the Bulguksa Temple. Photo courtesy of Derrick Swinford

Outside of their time at Drim School, the Mercer group toured a few museums, enjoyed local cuisine, went to the beach in Busan, met officials in the capital, and visited the Hana Foundation, which supports North Korean refugees. They also visited two Korean Army bases and attended a ceremony for the Army’s excavation project to find the remains of Korean War soldiers.

“Getting more of this Korean culture and opportunities to explore and experience that culture…was really a valuable experience for the students and for ourselves,” said Kang. “A lot of our students talk about Mercer On Mission being their reason. It is a decision-making tool for them to choose Mercer. I think many employees here feel the same way, myself included. To have the opportunity to make a difference, to be a change for the global community, that’s huge.”

Swinford chose the Mercer On Mission journey because of his Korean roots—his maternal grandmother was born and raised in Busan—and the opportunity to make a difference.

“I wanted to help give back to a world that gave me so much,” he said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could do good and use some of the things I’ve learned and given in my life in a positive way.”

Ross, who funded the trip with the Gilman Scholarship, said she has a great passion for Korean culture and has been studying the language for four years. The Mercer On Mission trip enabled her to study abroad while being supported by a group. She enjoyed experiencing Korea’s culture of community and togetherness.

Ross was able to practice her Korean a lot while the group went sightseeing. One of the few Mercer students who spoke Korean, she sometimes acted as the group’s spokesperson. It was an experience that challenged her and pushed her out of her comfort zone, she said.

“It was my first time abroad and the first time I felt I had made an impact in a community in a really tangible way,” Ross said. “I’ve found that my way of life has changed in that short amount of time. I would like to develop myself and travel to other countries and even work there. In a way, it certified that I wanted to work with minorities and help people who were less fortunate than me.”

Feature Photo: The Mercer Group is pictured atop the N Seoul Tower. Photo courtesy of Derrick Swinford


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