Mac Festa is definitely going back to South Africa.

When he began his senior semester at WVU’s College of Business and Economics, involvement in the problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa was not on his radar screen. But that changed during his final spring break as an undergraduate.

A finance senior from Ohiopyle, Pa., he joined three other business students in an unconventional capstone honors course. In April, they spent a week in South Africa visiting agencies on the front lines in the battle against the disease – agencies that help people who, already burdened with poverty, have often been dealt a death sentence. The students’ mission was to bring their business knowledge to the agencies.

On the last evening of their experience, writing on a blog the students established to chronicle their trip, Festa already knew he wanted to return.

“So, as we all pack for the return trip home,” he wrote, “I cannot help but think when I will have the opportunity to come back. Right now, we are working on completing a paper on micro-lending. It has been accepted for presentation at a conference in Ireland in June. If everything goes according to plan, we will be able to take the model presented in the paper and apply it in August in Malawi.”

The course grew out of a book their professor wrote. Presha Neidermeyer, associate professor of accounting, led several student trips to Africa while a faculty member at Union Graduate College, her former institution. The experience left her with a strong desire to act as a conduit to involve students in this area of philanthropy; thus the WVU course, which, in part, led to her being recognized for public service with the President’s Volunteer Service Award in February.

“Since we have medications that can – for a period of time – effectively manage the disease, HIV/AIDS does not have the deadly connotation it did when it was first reported. I think this makes people a lot less concerned than they should be about the disease, which still has neither cure nor preventative measure, such as a vaccine for those not infected. AIDS is the greatest crisis facing the human race this century,” said Neidermeyer, who teaches international accounting.

Dr. Neidermeyer’s book defines the disease and explores its history, but its main point is what it will take to defeat it. The authors suggest that the AIDS epidemic will not be quelled by financial aid alone. She and her co-author, Dr. Roger W. Hoerl of GE Global Research and Development in New York, believe the AIDS crisis can be surmounted, and the title of their book, “Use What You Have,” points to the solution.

The title is a quote from Jolly Nyeko, founder of Action for Children in Uganda, who was kidnapped at age 15 and held captive for five days before she escaped. She returned home, finished her education, became a social worker and began to see the issues of HIV/AIDS firsthand. With her only resources a phone and a desire to help, she advertised that she might not be able to do anything but listen, but she could do at least that. Out of that one phone has grown a large organization designed to serve children throughout Uganda, offering programs ranging from AIDS education to micro-loans and assistance to 250 former kidnapped child brides and their offspring.

Writing in the blog, Festa explored how the trip to Africa had affected all four students:

“The experience is something I will never forget. The people listed on these posts are all making a difference in a country that has seen its fair share of down swings. Over dinner tonight we began discussing the biggest question we will face as we return to our ‘normal’ lives on Monday, ‘How has this experience affected you?’ The answer is too big to write here. I could go on at length about how my life will be different. It would take no effort at all to write an 80-page paper on the experience. The only thing I can say is the following: Words, pictures and interviews will never display the experience South Africa has given to me. To understand what this country is truly like you must see it for yourself.”

Neidermeyer said having students travel to Africa was important because the educational experience in the classroom would not have had the impact.

“Africa provides a backdrop against which one is forced to evaluate his or her own position in the world at large,” she said. “This new horizon challenges your values and brings you out of the comfort zone. “

For Tristan Gartin, an accounting senior from Chapmanville, the experience, she said, has altered her plans for the future.

“I’m still not sure how I am going to give back to Africa, but I am determined to do so (and start soon),” she wrote, shortly after her return. “I know I will never be able to work for an organization that does not give back to their community (and I’m talking more than sitting aside one day a year for picking up trash). I will have to work for a company that is socially responsible and very aware of the world we live in. You often hear that to really make a difference, you have to give up your life in the U.S. and move. However, I know that the best thing I could do is to offer the very best of my skills in assisting organizations.”

As their spring break in South Africa drew to a close, Festa summed up the experience.

“I feel like we could write a book on everything we have taken in so far. The four of us ? spent three hours brainstorming of ways to help ? and what we can be doing. The amazing thing is we will visit another township tomorrow and two more after that before we go back. So the ideas will be endless, I am sure.”



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