Lehigh professors receive many accolades for their work, but few can say they are the honorary chief of an African village.
Bruce Moon, professor of international relations, received that honor while traveling with a group of students in rural Ghana. The students are studying development issues surrounding subsistence farming.
While working in Moon’s class, the students formed a nonprofit called SEAD: Sustainable Empowerment through Agricultural Development, which works with a local Ghanaian school to educate people about improving crop yields through conservation agriculture.
SEAD is just one of several student-led poverty alleviation projects that have arisen from Moon’s classes. He believes that it’s important for students to develop their own projects because it helps them learn the lessons he teaches and gives them skills that will be useful after college.
“It turns out that once students leave Lehigh, certain skills they’ve honed for 16 years aren’t as applicable,” he says. “They’ll never be required to write a blue book essay, for example. The intellectual curiosity that these projects generate is important.”
“Students realize that they haven’t learned anything that provides a direct answer to the problems they find, but they have discovered that some of the tools they’ve learned can be applied.”
Moon’s background is in international political economy, and he spent much of his career studying international relations and research methods. But over the last five years, his interests have shifted from trying to understand global poverty to trying to end it.
“I’m a little bit worried that other scholars won’t be able to study development as I have because I will have eliminated it all,” he jokes.
In addition to overseeing student projects like SEAD, Moon works overseas with students and professors in Lehigh’s social entrepreneurship program and Engineers Without Borders chapter.
He takes students abroad in part because the kind of severe poverty that he’s looking to alleviate doesn’t exist in the United States and in part because he believes that it’s important for students to see different cultures and economies firsthand.
“Universities are funny places,” he explains. “Students learn a lot of stuff, but I’m not sure they really learn it until they have to apply it. For me, this is about the benefits of experiential learning along with applying the knowledge I’ve learned over the years to effect positive change in the world.”
Moon asks a lot from his students, but they’re up to the challenge. The department is one of the few stand-alone international relations departments in the United States, so it attracts dedicated students with a passion for understanding the world.
Because the department doesn’t have a graduate program, undergraduates get opportunities they wouldn’t elsewhere. And those opportunities pay off for students.
“After all,” says Moon, “if you can wander into a rural village in Africa, talk to the chief and local government officials, go into fields with farmers and design a system to help them, create funding for that, create partnerships with local NGOs and universities, and you finish this when you’re 22, there’s not a whole hell of a lot that’s going to intimidate you after that.”