by Sam Bertholf
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Despite having spent significant time in the developing world, Bethel College senior Austin Regier wasn’t prepared for the economic disparities he encountered in southern Africa.
Regier, Newton, is a social work and Bible and religion double major at Bethel. He also serves on the board of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)-Central States. In that capacity, he participated in a two-week Leadership Learning Tour to Africa, Oct. 22-Nov. 5.
The full group for the learning tour included board members from both MCC U.S. and MCC Canada, who were then divided into smaller subgroups that traveled to different locations.
Regier’s subgroup – eight people, including him and the MCC regional co-director for southern Africa, Joan Alty – spent most of their time visiting with MCC partner organizations in Zimbabwe that serve a number of wide-ranging purposes.
“These organizations had a range of goals, from promotion of conservation agriculture, to the caretaking of children with disabilities, to water projects, specifically providing water sources in areas with dry climates.”
Although the timing presented some challenges – mainly, missing two weeks’ worth of classes in the back half of the semester – since Regier knew about the tour before school started, he had time to prepare.
“I had known about the trip since this summer,” he says, “so I was able to complete assignments and other tasks in advance.”
Besides, two weeks in Zimbabwe taught lessons the classroom never could have.
One aspect of the trip Regier found to be deeply significant was the shocking prevalence of poverty in the country, defying most of his attempts to describe or explain.
“I do not think that there is any way that I could relay the severity of the poverty that we saw,” he says.
And it was not Regier’s first time traveling in the developing world.
After graduating from Newton High School, Regier took a “gap year” before college, as part of Mennonite Mission Network’s service program then known as Radical Journey.
He spent a year in Paraguay, working at an HIV/AIDS center. Later, as a Bethel student, he participated in the interterm class Social Development and Social Justice in Mexico, which exposes students to a broad range of communities and living situations.
While these experiences showed Regier a level of poverty significantly higher than normally seen in the United States, they did not fully prepare him for the scale of poverty he would see in Zimbabwe.
“Even with my expectations of seeing poverty, and previous experiences with poverty in South America, the conditions that people were living in shocked me,” Regier says, “especially when compared to [those] of most people in the United States. An incredible disparity exists.”
As a Bethel student, Regier holds the values associated with a liberal arts education in high regard. According to him, “a liberal arts education should broaden a student’s horizons, challenge a student’s perceptions of the world, and demand that a student critically analyze every experience.”
He believes the trip to Zimbabwe helped test and expand on these three values outside the classroom.
“During this trip, I learned lessons about social justice, sustainability, peace and development, in ways I could never have learned in a classroom setting,” he says.
The experience also related well to Regier’s areas of study and future interests.
“All the organizations we visited have the goal of increasing the quality of life of those in the society who are too often oppressed or marginalized,” he says. “The experiences I gained on this trip were incredibly pertinent to my study of social work.”
While the learning tour was not directly connected to Bethel College, Regier sees it as a natural outgrowth of his Bethel experience.
“By allowing me a cross-cultural experience [like] this, Bethel, through the support of MCC, provided me an opportunity to engage in those three aspects of a liberal arts education.”
Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.
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