Senior Alex Lang wasn’t sure how his SM East teachers would react when he asked permission to miss three weeks of class.
But it was hardly a typical request.
The 18-year-old would travel to Papua, New Guinea, with a religious group to teach church members there how to use computers. The work would help link isolated New Guinea villages. The trip, he explained to teachers, started in October to take advantage of the dry season.
His teachers didn’t hesitate.
“All of my teachers agreed that I would learn more in those three weeks overseas than I would behind a desk,” he said.
They were right.
Lang came back in November with a strong desire to return overseas to help others.
Lang, who is a member of Atonement Lutheran Church, set off with a group of three other men as part of a Central States Synod trip. The Eagle Scout was the youngest by 40 years.
He was the first teenager to participate in this type of mission, but he won’t be the last, said Gary Teske, a retired pastor from Topeka who led the trip.
“He was a real celebrity over there is the best way to put it,” Teske said. “I don’t think we could have picked a better young person.”
The living conditions were hardly ideal.
The toilet was broken and there wasn’t indoor running water.
“But it was still home,” Lang said. “I personally saw it in the best light that I could.”
Teske was surprised and impressed when Lang – eager to make more connections – spent 24-hours with a family in a bush village.
“He just dove in and embraced everything. He was hungry for all of the experiences,” Teske said.
The group had several goals including teaching church members how to use computers to improve regional communication, Lang said. It allowed villagers to take advantage of new cell towers in the region. Until recently most communication came by word of mouth.
“The road system is terrible so it’s really hard to get information around,” Lang said. “They will be able to communicate through the internet as opposed to having to walk everywhere.”
Lang spent all of his free time connecting with local people and learning about the culture including the language, food, transportation, education system and more.
“Material goods come and go but the relationships that you make go on forever,” he said.
Once home, Lang, who will study pre-med at Creighton in the fall, didn’t receive a free pass from schoolwork.
“I left the second day of second quarter and I got back the day before mid-terms,” he said.
Each teacher came up with a plan that allowed him to catch up. It was an especially grueling task in his AP chemistry class. He took most of November off from his lifeguard job at the Paul Henson YMCA so he could study more. It took a month but Lang recently finished.
“(The teacher) looked at me and said, ‘Would you do it all again?’” he said. “And my honest and sincere answer was, in a heartbeat.”