A new multidisciplinary global health program at Hope College is building on extensive experience to help students prepare to meet an enduring and universal need.
The program, which started this fall, involves 12 academic departments in the natural and applied sciences, humanities and social sciences, and emphasizes applied learning and impact through classroom instruction and collaborative faculty-student research and connections to be established beyond campus to benefit local and global community health.
The external relationships have already started with Sawyer Products and the company’s The Sawyer Foundation, which for several years have worked with Hope faculty and students to address water-quality issues around the world. The new program has been initiated through a recent $2.5 million gift from the foundation, which along with Sawyer Products is also committed to continued partnership with the college.
“With this gift, Hope students will not only prepare to become leaders in global health, but will actively contribute to life-changing research,” explained Matthew A. Scogin, president of Hope College. “Before they have even graduated from Hope, they will have transformed the lives of others through their work inside and outside the classroom. We are so grateful to The Sawyer Foundation for their support.”
The award from The Sawyer Foundation also complements the recently launched Hope Forward initiative through which the college is seeking to fully fund tuition for every student while continuing to offer outstanding programming. The gift is enabling the college to enhance its academic program without drawing on existing resources to do so.
Supporting the global health program was a natural fit for Sawyer Products and The Sawyer Foundation, according to company founder and president Kurt Avery, who is a 1974 Hope graduate. A manufacturer of water filtration systems and other outdoor products, the company makes a priority not only of donating its filters, in the tens of thousands, to communities with need but funding research and — as through the college’s new program — training new generations to make a difference as well.
“At Sawyer, we are more than an outdoor company,” Avery said. “Our commitment includes creating disease-free water for life in communities throughout the world. We know that this kind of change cannot wait. And, what makes this new program so exciting is the immediate relevance of the students’ work. Their efforts will strengthen communities where health concerns are most pressing.”
The relationship between Hope and The Sawyer Foundation and Sawyer Products began about 5 years ago. Since then, the company and foundation have engaged faculty-student research teams in testing the effectiveness of its filters in developing nations. They have underwritten the college’s SEED (Sport Evangelism to Equip Disciples) program, through which students train communities in other nations on how to use Sawyer water filters while simultaneously spreading the Gospel. They have also hosted students through internships.
Correspondingly, Avery said, Sawyer’s commitment goes well beyond the foundation’s gift.
“We’re in it for the long-haul,” he said. “For example, we’ll be connecting students with NGOs that we work with for opportunities to serve abroad.”
Among other emphases, the college’s global health program includes a missional focus and strategic coordination among students, faculty, staff, campus programs, and communities near and far. The $2.5 million gift is funding the development of academic programming, experiential-learning capstone courses, and project-based-learning by interdisciplinary teams that engage in fieldwork, research or humanitarian entrepreneurship. Important goals of the program are to enable students to partner with organizations and programs that have enduring relationships with communities they serve and to engage students in experiential learning aligned with their level of training.
The program, which includes a new interdisciplinary and cross-divisional academic major and minor, builds some of its natural-science components on direct experience of the past work with Sawyer and other water-quality research conducted at Hope across the past two decades. One prominent and acclaimed example of that expertise is the wastewater-testing program that the college established last year to monitor the campus for the presence of COVID-19, with Hope having received grants through the State of Michigan to serve multiple other communities as well.
“Our research team, having extensive experience in projects with water, was able to quickly establish an effective wastewater monitoring program for COVID-19 at the college. This is currently expanding to monitor residents in much of Southwest Michigan,” said Dr. Aaron Best, who is the Harrison C. and Mary L. Visscher Professor of Genetics and chairs the Department of Biology, and is one of the faculty leading the wastewater testing initiative. “The pandemic put our team’s international projects that partnered with communities to obtain clean water on pause. The gift from Sawyer will help us to renew those projects in the coming months and provides resources to give students excellent experiential learning opportunities as the global health program expands.”
The global health program draws not only on such work, but on breadth and depth of expertise in departments including biology, communication, geological and environmental science, history, kinesiology, mathematics and statistics, nursing, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology and social work, and religion, as well as study-away programs. Hope will also be hiring a global health director to coordinate existing activities and to foster expansion and develop new external partnerships.
“Hope College is just fantastically positioned to do this,” said Dr. Jonathan Peterson, who is interim dean for the natural and applied sciences — and as a member of the geological and environmental science faculty conducts research on water quality. “We have such strength in our natural sciences. We have such strength in our health professions. We offer many international opportunities. And it fits into our mission.”
That mission — as expressed formally through the college’s mission statement — “is to educate students for lives of leadership and service in a global society through academic and co-curricular programs of recognized excellence in the liberal arts and in the context of the historic Christian faith.” The new program is designed to do that, but is also be an instance of the college teaching by example.
“If ever there has been a need for global health awareness and global health education, it’s right now,” Peterson said. “‘Global Health’ is the title, but the program will include people internationally and people who need access to health care in our own town.”
Avery noted that he is excited by the possibilities in the program model, especially as all of the participating academic departments and their students become increasingly involved and apply additional skills and perspectives.
For example, he said, “Most of the charities we partner with are sharing the Gospel at the same time. What is that bringing to those communities? Those are interesting questions to study.”
The people in the communities served, he said, aren’t the only ones whose lives he is looking forward to seeing transformed.
“You can’t see the amount of need in some communities and not be affected,” he said. “We hope to help students figure out how to serve.”
“We want one of three things to happen for the students,” he said. “One, they go there and say, ‘This is where I need to be long-term.’ Two, they say, ‘I’d like to be back once in a while’ — like a teacher who might be available during the summer. Or three, they say, ‘Even though my training takes me someplace else, here’s how I can still do something about it.’”