Hope College gets $2.5M gift to prepare students to become global health leaders

HOLLAND – Hope College students are preparing to become global health leaders “to meet an enduring and universal need” through a new multidisciplinary program, officials say.

The Global Health Program, which started this fall, was established with a recent $2.5 million gift from Sawyer Products and The Sawyer Foundation. The company, which has a global mission, manufacturers water filtration products, insect repellent, sunblocks, and outdoor protection.

For several years, Sawyer has worked with Hope faculty and students to address water-quality issues globally.

The new program involves 12 academic departments in the natural and applied sciences, humanities, and social sciences.

“With this gift, hope students will not only prepare to become leaders in global health but with actively continuing to life-changing research,” said Hope President Matthew Scogin, in a Sept. 16 news release announcing the program.

“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 gift specifically funds the development of academic programming, experiential-learning capstone course, and project-based learning by interdisciplinary teams engaging in fieldwork, research, or humanitarian entrepreneurship.

Additionally, the program emphasizes applied learning and impact through classroom instruction, collaborative faculty-student research, and establishing connections beyond campus to benefit local and global community health.

Some important goals of the program are enabling students to partner with organizations and programs, grow enduring relationships with communities they serve, and to engage students in experiential learning aligned with their level of training.

According to Hope, the gift enables the college to enhance its program without drawing on existing resources. College officials say the gift also complements the recently launched Hope Forward initiative, where Hope is seeking to fund tuition for every student while continuing to offer the program.

Related: Hope College announces free ‘pay-it-forward’ tuition model funded by alumni donations

Supporting the global health program was a natural fit for Sawyer Products and The Sawyer Foundation, according to founder and president Kurt Avery, a 1974 Hope graduate.

As a manufacturer of water filtration systems, Sawyer prioritizes donating its filters to communities in need and funding research. Additionally, through Hope’s program, the plan is to train new generations to make a difference.

“At Sawyer, we are more than an outdoor company,” Avery said in the news release. “Our commitment includes creating disease-free water for communities throughout the world, and know that this kind of change cannot wait. What makes this new program so exciting, is the immediate relevance of the students’ work. Their efforts will strengthen where health concerns are most pressing.”

Officials say the global health program, which includes a new interdisciplinary and cross-divisional academic major and minor, builds some of its natural-science components on experience gained from past work with Sawyer and other water-quality research conducted at Hope across the past two decades. 

For example, the wastewater-testing program that the college established last year to monitor the campus for the presence of COVID-19. The testing program received a $7.5 million state grant to serve multiple other communities as well.

Related: Hope College gets $7.5 million state grant to expand COVID-19 wastewater testing program

“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 Aaron Best, who is the Harrison C. and Mary L. Visscher Professor of Genetics and chairs the Department of Biology.

“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 program draws not only on the pandemic work, but on expertise in more than a dozen departments across the college including biology, communication, geological and environmental science, mathematics and statistics, nursing, political science, social work and religion, as well as study-away programs. 

Hope will 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 Jonathan Peterson, who is interim dean for the natural and applied sciences. “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 through the Hope’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.” 

“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.”

The college said Sawyer’s relationship with Hope began about five years ago. Since then, officials say the company and its foundation have engaged in faculty-student research teams in testing the effectiveness of its filters in developing nations.

The company has underwritten the college’s SEED (Sports Evangelism to Equip Disciples) program in which “students train communities in other nations on using Sawyer water filters while simultaneously spreading the Gospel,” and hosted students internships.

Avery said Sawyer’s commitment goes way beyond the gift. For example, he said they will be connecting students with NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations) that they work with, for opportunities to serve abroad.

He said he is excited by the possibilities in the program model, especially as the participating academic departments, and their students, become increasingly involved in applying additional skills, and perspectives.

“Most of the charities we partner with are sharing the Gospel at the same time,” Avery said. “What is that bringing to those communities? Those are interesting questions to study.”

The people in the communities served, he said, are the only ones whose lives he is looking forward to seeing transformed. He said you can’t see the amount of need in some communities and not be affected.

Avery said they want one of three things to happen for the students involved in the program.

“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,’” according to the Hope news release.

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