Mary Beth Byrne, an ordained deacon and retired teacher and school counselor, now serves at Africa University near Mutare, Zimbabwe.
By Marcie Smeck, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry
Mary Beth Byrne, an ordained deacon and retired teacher and school counselor from the Wisconsin Annual Conference, visited Africa University in 2011, with the Global Ministries’ Individual Volunteer in Mission program as part of a short term mission team from Indiana. In 2013, she returned to work there as a counselor and is now in her second school year at AU.
“Having been a teacher and counselor for over 50 years, I was used to the regular school year. My initial commitment was to volunteer for one semester, but I fell in love with AU,” Byrne said.
“Like many first-year teachers, at the end of my first year here I knew that I needed to use all I had learned, and I felt called to return for this school year,” she continued. “I am addicted! And I will be so thrilled to celebrate with all those who are graduating. My life has been so blessed for having known so many of them.”
During her 2011 visit to AU, Byrne heard that the United Methodist school needed help providing counseling services to students. Two years later she made the long term service commitment to the university, spending time with friends and family in the U.S. during summer and winter school holidays.
Byrne’s work includes one-on-one counseling, group counseling, seminars, workshops and other student services. In addition to mental health counseling, she helps students practice interview skills and prepare resumes for job searches.
Many students who come from war-torn countries carry heavy burdens and images of death and destruction, and suffer from various aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Byrne’s work helps them process all that happened in their past and paves the way for better concentration on their studies and a greater freedom to move forward.
On campus, she lives in faculty housing and works with Dr. Mazvita Machinga, who earned her PhD at Claremont School of Theology with financial help from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s Women of Color Scholars program.
“Dr. Mazvita Machinga has taught me so much about the African culture,” Byrne said. “It has been hard for me to learn to follow ‘proper protocol.’ I have made countless mistakes [due to my] Northern Hemisphere orientation!”
Machinga, certified trainer for Mental Health First Aid Training at AU, is one of few trained psychotherapists in Zimbabwe and is regularly called upon to provide mental health services and training to pastors, police and firemen, and church congregations besides her part-time work at the university. Without the offering of these mental health services, students were previously left to seek help from the dean of their faculty, lecturers, the chaplain, or other administrative staff, already burdened with many other responsibilities and often lacking necessary counseling skills. Machinga and Byrne already have graduated four classes of about 25 students and staff, each.
Byrne also conducts a 12-hour mental health first aid course, similar to first aid courses for physical safety.
“I am training people to understand what mental health is and how to be mental health first responders until an impaired individual can get help,” she said.
“I consider that my work here is a ministry of presence and support, serving as a listening ear and a cheerleader, as well as teacher, mentor, counselor and friend,” Byrne continued. “Working with the diverse student body has brought a great sense of satisfaction as I watch these young adults gain confidence and mature into real leaders here on campus. I know that their leadership skills will eventually change their countries and this continent as a whole. And yes, I see that ‘The Dream Is Alive!’”
The AU Counseling and Career Services Mission Statement is “to facilitate individual wellness, growth and development among AU students and staff by providing a broad range of psychological, counseling and career services to help them positively deal with personal, interpersonal, vocational and academic issues.” To learn more or donate, visit www.support-africauniversity.org.