SPRINGFIELD -- This weekend Wittenberg University will recognize a father and a son who have chosen different paths to improve life in war-torn Liberia.
The son, Samuel Harris, receives his degree at Wittenberg University's 158th Commencement Saturday. At the dais he will carry with him the hopes of many people who have never met him. He plans to become a doctor and return to Liberia, where years of civil war has forced most medical professionals to leave the country.
The father, Sumoward Harris, will receive an honorary doctorate at the same ceremony, recognizing his fight for peace and justice in Liberia where he is well known as President of the Liberian Council of Churches.
The Harris family has faced hardships during the long war, including being exiled for a time to the Ivory Coast. But Sumoward, a Lutheran Bishop, moved back home to become a leader in promoting peace and reconciliation.
Samuel, a biology major, has already been accepted at two medical schools. He is the first beneficiary of Wittenberg's African Medical Student Scholarship program, which supports African students who intend to practice in Africa through both undergraduate and medical training.
As a Lutheran-affiliated institution, Wittenberg has a long history of service in Liberia, stretching back nearly as far as the university itself. Morris Officer, who was one of Wittenberg's earliest students, was also put in charge of the construction of Myers Hall in 1850. A year later Officer founded the Lutheran mission in Liberia. Since then graduates of Wittenberg and its Hamma Divinity School have served in Liberia as doctors, nurses, pastors and teachers.
Among them were the Rev. Jerry Schmalenberger '56 and his wife, Carol Walthall Schmalenberger '59, who both served as volunteers in Liberia. Since then they have supported the education of many Liberians, most recently organizing the African Medical Student Scholarship program with the individual support of Wittenberg President Baird Tipson and a group of physicians with Wittenberg roots.
The paucity of medical services influenced Samuel to want to heal people very early. When he was 13, a close friend died of malaria. "I just hated being helpless. The feeling of not being able to help and the civil war influenced my decision to be a doctor."
Growing up in the small village of Totota, Samuel said that the clinic only had a nurse and that disease was rampant. "People were dying," he said. "So many people died from malaria, diarrhea and cholera.
"During the war and still today, people die from commonly treatable diseases simply because there are no doctors and medicine," he said. "I want to become a doctor so that I can return to Liberia to help with the desperate medical situation even in the most minuscule way possible."
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