Student Success Stories

Seizing Experiential Learning Opportunities

Caleb Mercer with his homestay family at the Toji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, 28 April 2018.

Caleb Mercer ‘19, a senior majoring in history and religious studies, has embraced the experiential learning opportunities offered by Virginia Wesleyan University.

As a sophomore, Mercer enrolled in HIST 222: History of Modern Korea with Dr. Daniel Margolies. This course traveled to South Korea to experience Korea’s history and culture first hand. Mercer enthusiastically explains, “This was the best class I have ever taken. Through studying abroad, I could see the clear continuity between the material we learned and the state of Korea today.” Mercer was awarded a Study Away Course Grant through The Lighthouse to enroll in this course.

As a rising junior, Mercer undertook an independent research project that examined The Bible, Romans 1, and human sexuality. Mentored by Dr. Craig Wansink, Mercer conducted research at Duke University’s Divinity School Library, and he received funding through The Lighthouse’s Summer High-Impact Practice Program (SHIPP) to support his research.

As a junior, Mercer studied abroad for a year in Osaka, Japan with one of VWU’s exchange partner institutions, Kansai Gaidai University. His study abroad experience was funded through Virginia Wesleyan’s Global Scholars Program.

And as a senior, Mercer is currently undertaking a research project in HIST 460: Senior Thesis Seminar with Dr. Kathleen Casey that investigates the United States’ mandate for Japan to rearm during the Korean War.

What was the impact of these experiences? According to Mercer, they provided a springboard for his future. “I hope to live a life serving the international community through diplomatic affairs or international law. My study abroad and research experiences have provided a good foundation for a career in international affairs.” These experiences also taught Mercer how to recognize, evaluate, and appreciate different perspectives, which is critical for a career in international affairs. He explains, “My majors require one to analyze perspectives different than my own. My summer research project taught me how to do an exegetical analysis of a text, which is similar to engaging in a dialogue. The researcher has to keep in mind the work of past scholarship and use it to make an argument for his or her research question. My year abroad allowed me to learn a great deal about Japanese culture and cultural exchange.”

Embracing research and study abroad wasn’t always smooth sailing for Mercer, however. As he recounts, “The most important takeaways came from making mistakes. For study abroad, I constantly said the wrong things and sometimes even acted impolitely. But only through making mistakes could I learn what was acceptable. Similarly, my research came from making mistakes. In the first draft of my paper, I tried to take on too many topics and ended up straying away from my best point. Only through writing several drafts did I develop the best argument.”

Reflecting on his year abroad, Mercer urges other students, “If you want to study away, then just go for it.” He also recommends, “Don’t hang out with too many Americans. Some international students spend too much time with people from their own country. Their study abroad experience becomes one big student tour, which is much different than cultural immersion. The only way to get to know your host country is through developing relationships with locals.”

Mercer credits his faculty advisors for guiding him to and through these experiences. “My faculty mentors have continuously offered their support for my academic and career efforts.” At Virginia Wesleyan, faculty mentoring is the heart of experiential learning. Students who undertake research, internships, and study away work closely with professors, who carefully guide them to academic, professional, and personal success.