Community Engagement & Service
December 2, 2013 by Daniel Reichwein
A fireman, a lawyer, an astronaut, a scientist, a professional lottery winner, a philanthropist, even a male model were all on my list of future careers as I was growing up.
Being homeless for three years certainly wasn’t on the list. Nor was the hereditary health problem that caused me to become homeless, be discharged from the U.S. Army reserve, and withdraw from Indiana University – where I used to study on academic scholarship. No, that sure wasn’t how I envisioned my future as I stared blissfully at that fire engine birthday cake. Those events stunted my academic career to the point where I am now an undergraduate student 10 years older than my peers.
The basis for my idea of what I wanted to do when I grew up matured as I matured. When I was in a foster home (the picture above is from one that was initially good), I wanted to be a fireman because that fire truck was just so cool. It had a ladder and could spray a ton of water everywhere. I could ride that truck on my way to rescue kittens in trees and save people. Then, when I was adopted into a family, Miles, the lawyer who arranged it, became my hero. I wanted to be like him – making things right, saving kids from bad people.
In elementary school, I started learning about science. What’s cooler than firetrucks? Being an astronaut in outer space, of course. It would be the grandest adventure ever. Exploring the stars, visiting all the planets, exploring the unknown, leaving the familiar behind. My mind seemed suited for science as I learned about Newton’s & Einstein’s work. There was so much depth and knowledge to uncover in our own world too.
As I got older, I became more aware of the need for money. My adoptive father worked a low-paying job at a bakery an hour away trying to provide for five children. Times could be tough back then. It showed in the disparity between us and the middle class kids in school. I knew the perfect solution: to become a professional lottery winner! In my late high school years, I became selfish in my career ambitions and thought of becoming a male model. They made a lot of money, looked good, and were smooth with the ladies.
Then, while I was in my second year of university, I began to experience the health problems that ultimately led to my homelessness. That journey is long enough to fill a whole book, but if you’re interested, you can check out an old blog I started in the twilight of my life on the streets. Being homeless opened my eyes to a part of the American population that most people disregard as self-made poverty cases. I didn’t find that to be true. Eventually I was connected with a homeless support organization where a social worker helped me get back into college and find a job. At my new job a co-worker discovered I was homeless. She let me live with her, and I found a new, “adoptive” family.
This exposure to a sometimes overlooked socioeconomic problem and the kindheartedness that strangers showed to help someone in need truly inspired me. It inspired me to my newest aspiration of what I want to be when I grow up. I want to use my new passion and experience with the homeless community and current alleviation solutions to help the homeless people throughout our country. I plan to repudiate negative stereotypes by telling people about my experiences and to utilize the kindness of others in intelligent ways.
The College of William & Mary recently helped me explore my passion by paying for me to attend a social entrepreneurship convention in North Carolina run by the Sullivan Foundation. During this “retreat” weekend, students discussed and contemplated big questions such as what are you truly passionate about and what would you do if money wasn’t a concern. Those who had an idea that they wanted to manifest into a positive change in the world got to sit down in a small group and exchange ideas with each other and a facilitator who works for a non-profit. We also had a crash course in design thinking and formed some mock business plans for socially-conscious firms. Through this exploration I came to the realization that while helping people was my passion, I was not willing to make sacrifices to my personal financial security.
I don’t want to have to worry about paying my bills just because I choose to make a career out of helping others. Starting my own venture would be too risky, and I don’t want to grind years of experience to get a decision-maker/change-maker job helping people. Thus, I plan on attending graduate school and then either working full-time in a professional law or business career while manifesting my philanthropic aspirations on my own time OR earning an MBA then working full-time in management for a large, well-funded organization that helps Americans in need.
It’s tough knowing what you want to do with your life at such a young age. Some people are fortunate enough to find their passion as a kid with college just serving as credential development to get their dream job. Other times, you have to learn about different subjects or explore different jobs to find your passion, and that’s perfectly fine. A retiree turned business professor told me recently that sometimes you even find that what you’re passionate about changes every decade. Unexpectedly, I figured out what I wanted to do through a painful experience.
Whatever you want to be when you’re grown up and out of William & Mary, make sure it’s something you’re passionate about and don’t forget to take some time to help the community in which you live and work. And if you haven’t figured out your passion, it’s okay. Try a class that sounds interesting; talk to our wonderful faculty advisors or the Career Center; and don’t forget about your professors. They are fountains of knowledge and experience, eager to pass that on to you.
November 6, 2013 by Stephen Bennett
I hope everyone had a great summer. I am sure there were many internships, jobs and needed relaxing. I traveled to Ghana. I traveled with one of William & Mary’s Social Entrepreneurs, Ali Siddiqui, who serves on the board of the Acumen Fund, the world’s largest social investor, and runs a private equity shop in Pakistan. We traveled to a social enterprise investment in the greater Accra-Tema area that focused on cultivating rice. It contributed to the local community with jobs and opportunities. Mr. Siddiqui provided insight into the importance of understanding the community and being transparent and honest with the community. Foreigners and Ghanaian people operated it, but they distrusted the foreign element in the community. The business owners gave us a tour and explained how Acumen and the community jointly owned it. Although a simple business it was the Acumen fund that helped get it off the ground that gave jobs and social benefits to the people in the surrounding community.
Adam, another student, and I then proceeded to travel with Mr. Siddiqui for the next couple of days as he evaluated the business opportunities in the country for his private firm. We visited various government offices and local business leaders. It opened my eyes to the world of international investing. Mr. Siddiqui examined the ports, the type of infrastructure, the type of raw materials and their quality. He needed to look beyond just economic concerns though. He needed a multifaceted perspective because he had to analyze the culture and the government structure. My liberal arts education from W&M came alive in Ghana as I realized the importance of evaluating each perspective. The College has taught me to blend all the subjects together to really see the greater picture. My anthropology class mixed with my economic development course, which blended with my finance and history courses. I felt that the experience had a greater impact because of my liberal arts background. This provided better insight into understanding international investing, social enterprise, and international relations all in four days in Ghana. I still cannot believe I spent four days there that exemplified the importance of liberal arts and gave me a goal for my career.
The College is a truly special place that extends well beyond the campus. It extends to places where William & Mary students gain these truly unique experiences that open their eyes to the importance of a liberal arts background. William & Mary students continue to learn and pursue unconventional paths because the school continues to offer great opportunities like my trip to Ghana. I went from ushering the Commencement ceremony, to spending a week at the beach with my improv group, to learning about social enterprise and global investing in Ghana, to working in New York City for my summer internship and it made my summer unforgettable. It was a crazy start, but this is the college experience that I can only expect from William & Mary.
Roll Tribe from Ghana,
October 28, 2013 by Melody Porter
Branch Out held a Homecoming reception this weekend to welcome back alumni who participated in alternative breaks while they were here. It was quite a crowd, with people buzzing in from all over the world. Some of those I talked to had come from places as far away as Ireland, San Diego and Tanzania recently.
One student director alumna is working with migrant workers in North Carolina, developing education sessions on health and safety practices to share with them to mitigate the high risks they face in their labors. Another alumnus is studying for his master’s in higher education, and continues to be involved in alternative breaks – no longer as a site leader, but as an adviser. One former site leader talked about her work, which isn’t quite in the field she wants to be in, but she is busy finding ways to connect her experience in environmental sustainability to what she does. Another alumnus, who is now a community partner for one of our national trips, told me about his meeting earlier that day with the site leaders he’ll be working with this March. And one alumna wasn’t part of our program but stopped by to tell us about her recent time in East Africa, and to see about ways that she could support our two international alternative breaks that go to countries where Swahili is spoken.
The vision of Branch Out alternative breaks is to create a community of active and educational individuals dedicated to the pursuit of social justice. Throughout the year, I see this happening in different ways. I see it when our site leaders gather and work together to develop trips that will support community-driven work for social change. I see it when participants on a trip laugh together over simple meals eaten in community center basements, and later struggle together in reflection about how to tutor better tomorrow. And last night, I saw how this community continues even when it is dispersed across the world, as breakers who continue to live out their unique commitments to social justice met up with current program leaders and participants who welcomed them back with gracious hospitality, eager to hear their stories and glimpse into their futures as active citizens.
October 15, 2013 by Daniel Reichwein
When I was a kid, my father had paid a man to bring some firewood to our small farm and unload it in the middle of Indiana winter. He had arrived late, and my dad was very short and irate with him. We were low on supply and needed the firewood to power a couple wood-burning furnaces of our dog kennel. My parents bred Great Dane dogs and operated a small hog farm.
Funny thing was that no matter how mad my dad was, that firewood didn’t get unloaded any quicker. So I put on my coat and gloves and went outside to help the man. He was in his 40s with a well-weathered face and feeble demeanor. After the surprise of me offering to help him passed, I got to know him a little as we stacked the firewood along the front of the dog kennel.
I can’t remember the man’s name now, but I won’t forget his story. As it turns out, his wife had recently divorced him for reasons unknown and he had a boy he was raising by himself at home. He was chopping and selling firewood trying to make a living for the two of them. Work doesn’t come easy nor does it pay well in rural Indiana, or any rural area for that matter, so he was trying to get by as best as he could. Before we parted, he shook my hand and thanked me for the help. That was one of my first lessons in respect.
There a couple ways that this story applies outside of unloading firewood in wintry, rural Indiana. If you see your classmate struggling to answer a question or explain something, jump in and help him/her. The same thing applies to your professor who might be having a problem getting their presentation or video to start that you know how to solve. Try to think “extrospectively” when a classmate shows up late for a meeting. They could be dealing with some serious personal problem or working a couple part-time jobs so they can afford to go to school here. Lastly, as you look around at your classmates, don’t judge them. No one is as simple as they appear to be. We all have our stories.
August 22, 2013 by Madelyn Smith
Day after day I am bombarded with news about wars raging, violence ensuing, natural resources depleting and crises destroying lives of millions of people. I sit on the metro, tears welling in my eyes, feeling so small in a world that is consumed by distress. I stay up late nights making sketches of solutions to these problems consistently met with challenges; lack of resources, connections, people, and mostly, time. How do you effect change if you are just one single person in a sea of thousands?
- Recognize that the hero’s of our world didn’t get there by chance. They didn’t make a name for themselves by passively sitting down and waiting for the next big thing to happen. Maybe there was a stroke of luck, but they rose to the challenge. They saw an opportunity and they chased it. I am inspired by those people who recognize an issue, understand that they are only one person, but work to mobilize groups – sometimes thousands – for a cause they believe in. You might only be one person, but you are one person with a voice.
- Set yourself aside. The human mind only has a capacity to empathize with a select population of people, but empathy can also be created and bred through experience. It is easier said than done to pick up your life and go move to a place where you can experience poverty, turmoil and conflict. I’m not asking you to do that. Instead, think about what people in these situations are feeling. Try to imagine what it would feel like to come home to a house where your family was victim to a chemical weapons attack… you step over the bodies of the people you love most in this world, realizing with each passing moment that every single one of them is dead. Put yourself in the shoes of a rebel fighter struggling with every thing that he or she has for a peace that they may never know. Picture yourself walking for days to seek refuge in a neighboring country with a single bag of belongings, knowing that you may never be able to return home. The process of learning to empathize will create a deep passion to bring about change that will continue to motivate in the toughest times.
- Understand that the news is subjective. As consumers of the media, we have a responsibility to deduce truth, and form opinion based on our most objective interpretation. The goal of the media is to solicit a response – whether negatively or positively – to a situation. And while we like to think that the news is entirely objective, like any private corporation, these agencies need to stay in business which means they have to “sell” the news. Stop and think about it. The day that the Washington Post reported that a drought was killing and displacing thousands of people in Somalia, Casey Anthony was on the front page*. This should tell you something about the priorities of the news.
- Finally, BELIEVE THAT YOU CAN. The thought of becoming jaded horrifies me, which is why I will continue to write blogs like this to remind myself that we are all capable of perpetuating good in this world. If we all became cynical about our ability to create change, no one would ever get anything done. There are millions of people who work long days and dedicate their lives to making the world a better place. To those individuals, I solute you.
If you take away one thing from this message, it is that you have great opportunity to make a difference. You can be the change. You can be the inspiration. The hope. The reminder of good. The positive light in the darkest places. Don’t ever forget that…
June 28, 2013 by Erin Spencer
It’s been eleven months since I first developed the basic idea for The Lionfish Project. I had been bouncing grant ideas off people for weeks, the only thing I had narrowed down was that I wanted to do something with lionfish. One night in August, right before a family vacation to Key West, my Dad and I were driving back from an Orioles game. He dropped me off to pick up my car, and in the 20 minutes it took me to drive home, I developed the outline of the project. It was one of those instances that ideas fall into your lap, and it turned out to be the start of something pretty incredible.
Now, almost a year later, I’m finally here. On Thursday I boarded the Auto Train in Lorton, Virginia for a 17-hour train ride down the East Coast to Sanford, Florida. The entire experience is absolutely surreal—it’s hard to believe that something that once seemed like such an unachievable dream is finally happening. The last eleven months have seen their fair share of tears, rants and doubts as I developed my first ever grant-funded independent research project, but thankfully I had a network of endlessly supportive friends and family to see me through. I owe them a huge amount of thanks, because I know it couldn’t have been easy (especially in February while waiting to hear the results of the grant—I’m surprised I have any friends at all after that! I was a total wreck).
But now the real work begins. I’ve spent the last two months or so focused on logistics—getting releases, contacting interviewees, talking with research stations and pouring over Florida Keys guidebooks. To date, I have eight interviews locked in and many more in the works. Every person I contact leads me to two or three other potential interviewees—to the point that my head is swimming with possibilities. Mostly, I’m humbled by how welcoming and supportive the Florida Keys community has been. Bound together by a common love of their native coral reef, these individuals will support any cause working to save it. I’m rapidly finding that these are some of the most innovative and passionate people I’ve ever met. My time in the Keys will hopefully result in a captivating story about the individuals who are eradicating invasive lionfish—after all, that’s why I’m here. My challenge is to discover and capture these stories in a way that truly does them justice. It will undoubtedly be a learning experience with its ups and downs, and I’ll certainly make mistakes along the way. But from what I’ve seen so far, the stories will ultimately speak for themselves.
Now I’ve just got to go get them.
June 27, 2013 by Arvin Alaigh
In my last post, I began summarizing my favorite site visits that our Leadership & Community Engagement Institute took during our two week class. Below, I have listed and described four more standout visits.
5. Perhaps one of our most resonating visits came Mike Powell, the son of former Secretary of State, Colin Powell. He opened by sharing his life story with us, beginning with his humble beginnings as a TWAMP (Class of 1985) – a Government major, Yates resident, ROTC cadet and involved student. He continued regaling us with anecdotes from his military career that was unfortunately cut short in an automobile accident while stationed in Germany. Because of the accident, he endured not only an incomprehensible amount of physical pain (he spent a year in the hospital rehabilitating), but emotional pain. Since he was young, he had been working towards a career in the military and following in his father’s footsteps, but his circumstances forced him to change his life’s direction and give up on his dream. These trying times taught Mike to persevere through hardships and redefine success as an attainable end. Following his departure from the military, he tried his hand (and succeeded) in seemingly everything, having attended Georgetown University Law Center, serving a clerk for the DC Court of Appeals, a private attorney and in the Justice Department… not to mention a stint as an advisor to the Department of Defense. He eventually ended up working in the field of communications, serving as the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from 2001-05, and currently the President of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Mike shared insight on his principle-driven leadership style, which is highlighted by his ten core pillars that shape himself and how he leads. He sees them as sacred and unique to every person – so much so, that he refuses to share his own with anybody. To Mike, the contents of one’s character reign paramount when assessing a leader, and their importance cannot ever be understated. The lecture itself was so captivating that by the end of it, I could not believe an hour and a half and elapsed. His stories, life experiences and advice took the shape of a motivational leadership seminar, and they truly inspired every person listening.
6. In terms of community engagement, DC Central Kitchens is likely the organization that is most directly impacting tangible change. We first met with Chief Executive Officer Mike Curtin, who chronicled a brief history of the organization, along with logistical information on how it is run. First and foremost, Mike made it clear that DCCK is not a soup kitchen. Instead, it distributes food to various soup kitchens and shelters around the District; but its primary purpose is to mobilize otherwise underserved individuals into the workforce. Through a training program that lasts several months, DCCK trains individuals to work in the foodservice industry. After they graduate from the program, the Kitchens will hire these individuals and provide them with a living wage and help them find housing in order to be self-sustaining. They will cook and prepare food that in turn goes out to various places, including soup kitchens, shelters, and as of late, to schools in the District. Throughout his presentation, Mike Curtin was very expressive about the role of his organization in providing opportunities for DC residents. He passionately averred that society had forsaken these individuals, and amidst the inefficiency and inaction of Washington bureaucracy, real people were suffering dire consequences. I thought it was particularly interesting when Mike said that DC Central Kitchens will have been considered successful when it can no longer stay open – it is not often that an organization sets out to go out of business and have its services no longer needed. Though its scope may not be as grand as MCC or Aspen (yet), there is no doubt that DCCK plays an incredibly important role in the lives of many underserved individuals, providing them with a venue to turn their lives around and find success.
7. Penelope Spain was one of only two site visits that actually came to visit us at the William & Mary DC office. She has her background in law, having attended Washington College of Law and graduating in 2005. While in law school, Penelope started a club that allowed students to go to a local detention center, and from this emerged Mentoring Today. She chronicled the organization’s beginnings as a group at WCL dedicated to helping incarcerated youth get reassimilated into society – though it remains small (there are 3 full-time employees), the organization has garnered a fair amount of attention and recognition within the DC/Maryland community. She shared with us the intimate inner-workings of Mentoring Today, shedding light on how she runs a nonprofit with such small overhead. Though she has run into her fair share of hardships, she has remained unwavering in her mission to helping the oft-forgotten youth, providing them with the stable figures that have usually been absent in their lives. I loved her passion and drive, along with her do-it-yourself mentality that inspired her to start her own organization – for these reasons, Penelope was one of my favorites of our site visits.
8. William & Mary/Teach For America alumna/Anacostia High School teacher Lauren Sterner marked the final of our site visits, and in my opinion, it was the most profound. It was the only visit in which we got a firsthand view at a community engager in action. We sat in on two sections of Ms. Sterner’s 9th grade English class, and though not every student seemed engaged in curriculum, she did a phenomenal job in captivating the attention of many. Despite a gentrification project that the school has been undertaking for the past few years, the district is still poorly funded – prior to starting her first class, Ms. Sterner explained that several English teachers would be cut due to budgetary restrictions. We witnessed even other poignant examples of this underfunding during the class itself, from the outdated textbooks that were being used (some were even older than the students themselves), to Ms. Sterner’s announcement to the students that the classroom was out of paper. I view individuals like Lauren as champions of education. Despite having other opportunities, both in profession and in location, she chooses to serve those students who need it and can benefit the most, and I find this admirable to the utmost extent. As someone who has a general interest in education, I was inspired and motivated by seeing Lauren in action. Ideally, we would have gotten to speak to her for longer but this site visit nonetheless impacted our class greatly.
As I stated in my previous posts, our two week class was not a William & Mary class in a traditional sense. Sure, we had our fair share of readings, discussions, lectures and writing assignments, but we still found time to visit many outstanding organizations/individuals all around DC. At times, it seemed overwhelming, considering the sheer amount of people and places we visited; nevertheless, I am very thankful to have gained that kind of experience. Perhaps the most enriching part of the two weeks came in the form of exposure. We saw all the shapes and forms that engagement could manifest itself in, from working in international development, to the government, to the classroom. We all learned that there are countless ways to affect positive change within the community, and as leaders, we ought to follow our own path, find our niche, and excel.
June 5, 2013 by Arvin Alaigh
Before getting into the meat of this next entry, I would like to formally redact a statement that I issued in my last blog post. If my memory serves me correctly, I listed “eating Buffalo Wild Wings” as one of my hobbies – it is with a heavy heart (and most likely clogged arteries) that I must announce, as of Thursday, May 23rd, Buffalo Wild Wings and myself have decided to go our separate ways. Though we certainly had our fun over the past few years, it is time that our relationship must meet its end. You are undoubtedly asking yourselves how a holy union could possibly end so abruptly… Well allow me to be your muse.
I, Arvin Alaigh, have been a buffalo wing enthusiast for as long as I can remember. This particular Thursday, I was entranced by the temptation of 60-cent/wing night, so much so that earlier this day, I made the conscious decision of eating a light lunch. As a result, I was understandably famished by the time we finally headed to BWW around 7 PM. Once there I absolutely crushed my twelve boneless hot wings in about six minutes flat, scarfing them down with a tangible intensity that still haunts me today. This proved to be my ultimate undoing. The events that followed this “meal” were excruciatingly painful. Apparently, the Buffalo Wild Wings hot sauce has a corrosive property unbeknownst to most customers – I had the privilege of experiencing this firsthand. For the next few hours, I could feel my stomach and intestines slowly incinerating at the hands of this seemingly poisonous liquid. I spent the rest of the evening grimacing about in bed, chugging Pepto-Bismol, watching reruns of The OC on my computer and begging to God for mercy. I still felt aftershocks of my chicken wings the morning after, and it was then that I made the executive decision to sever ties with the restaurant. I acknowledge that I cannot blame anyone else for my misgivings, and I assume full responsibility for all events that transpired.
My first two weeks in Washington were mentally and physically exhausting, but in the most rewarding way possible. The Leadership & Community Engagement class consisted primarily of lectures, discussions and site visits. Though there was no set daily schedule, our activities fell between about 9 AM – 4 PM every day – the bulk of this time was spent visiting various individuals around the District. We ended up having eighteen site visits, most of which consisted of individuals representing their respective organizations in the nonprofit and/or political sectors. I could individually chronicle each detail of every site visit, but I feel that may be somewhat monotonous, and my goal with this blog is to secure my readers’ interests. For this reason, I’ll break down my top eight site visits (in no particular order) accompanied by brief descriptions –
1. Class of 1975 alumna Karen Schultz was our first visit of the Institute, and undoubtedly she was one of the class’s favorites. Her political career was highlighted by the hotly contested race for the 27th District of Virginia in November of 2007. Though she ended up losing in a widely controversial fight, she gained much insight and expertise on how elections are run, much of which she shared with our class. But in my opinion, the most appealing aspect of Ms. Schultz was her authenticity and genuineness; frankly, she was one of the nicest, most sincere individuals with whom we had met. She has also been a faculty member at Shenandoah University since 1981, having served as the Director of the Institute for Government and Public Service at the university since 2009.
2. Mike Henry is currently the Chief of Staff for Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, whose primary expertise lies in managing campaigns, boasts an impressive resume with a wealth of experience in local, state, federal and even presidential elections. In addition to this, he also worked with the ONE Campaign, a nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to ending extreme poverty around the world. Mike was relatively soft-spoken, yet he captivated the class with stories from his days managing campaigns, comparing them to his time at ONE. He also shared valuable insight on effective leadership qualities, speaking at length to Senator Kaine’s abilities as a leader and an effective agent of change.
3. We met with Mickey Bergmen of the Aspen Institute on the third day of our site visits. He is the Executive Director of the Global Alliances program at the Aspen Institute, which serves as “the Institute’s expert platform for establishing and implementing partnerships between the Aspen Institute, US government and public offices, the US private sector, and local counterparts and communities throughout the world.” His work specifically deals with promoting private-sector relationships as a means of assisting relationships between nations with little diplomatic interactions, such as Israel and Palestine. He quickly won over our class with his kind and jovial nature, captivating us with many stories from his adventures facilitating diplomacy around the world. My personal favorite set of anecdotes was regarding his January visit to North Korea – he explained the dynamic of the government and its officials, and told several humanizing stories of people with whom he had met. He pointed out how Western society tends to villainize North Koreans, but his interactions with them showed that they were ordinary people, just like us. This was a theme throughout all of Mickey’s anecdotes – though we have our emotional differences propagated by our respective individual identities, at the end of the day, we are all humans. Regardless of whether we’re Israeli, Palestinian, North Korean, Russian or American, we will laugh, cry and emote, and it was refreshing to see Mickey’s candor in discussing this. In summary, Aspen was a phenomenal site visit. Though I am not particularly interested in mediating foreign relations, Mickey’s personability and knowledge made it one of the most captivating and enjoyable site visits of the two weeks.
4. The Millennium Challenge Corporation is a foreign aid agency that was first commissioned by Congress in 2004, so it is still relatively new. Essentially, it distributes very large sums of money (usually in the hundreds of millions of dollars) to developing countries over a certain period of time. A nation’s eligibility is determined by its score on 17 different indicators under three categories: Ruling Justly, Investing in People, Economic Freedom. These indicators are compiled by outside parties, such as Freedom House, World Bank Institute, and World Health Organization. As for the site visit itself, it differed greatly from any other that we had – as we entered the office, we were greeted with an array of national flags and portraits of world leaders. Immediately, I felt a certain energy about the office; MCC’s staffers seem to don a motivated, professional aura that was especially fitting for such champions of international development. Our presenters were informative in detailing the specifics of MCC compacts, going in depth on the protocol of how they are granted and implemented. Though it lacked the personable quality that made Mickey and Karen special, we still loved MCC and its work. We witnessed an organization truly excel at what it set out to do – that is, to effectively distribute hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Out of all of the sites our class visited, I believe that MCC objectively operated on the grandest scale, and as a result generated the greatest number of tangible results for those in need. I feel that their work environment was representative of how the organization itself ran – with great professionalism, efficiency, and aplomb.
Okay because this is a lot longer than I anticipated (and I’m not sure I want this post to be >2000 words), I will post my next four site visits as well as some reflections on my next entry.
~~STAY TUNED ~~
June 5, 2013 by Melody Porter
I was recently invited to share some remarks at the volunteer appreciation event at WindsorMeade, and wanted to pass them along to you, cyber world!
I first started volunteering because of Burger King. My youth group at church had begun a regular Youth Work Day on Saturday mornings, where a bunch of us would pile into the back of our leader’s truck, head to the homes of people who needed repairs and yard work done (but couldn’t do it themselves), and wrangle tools we were unqualified to handle, like hedge trimmers and spackle knives. The idea was that the folks who lived in these homes could stay in them longer, and we’d get a taste of what we knew was good for us – to give to others. Though, as I mentioned, a huge motivator for me was the promise of heading to Burger King afterward, getting a Whopper Jr., and acting like I was cool with a crown on my head. Whatever it takes, right?
Though, of course, you can guess that much more than I expected actually happened in those work days. I got to know some of those people whose homes we went to, and I learned how much I liked them. They’d bring out a tray of lemonade, or offer a rest in the air conditioning for a few minutes, and during that time, I’d tell them about school while they told me about their lives. Quite a few of those folks became long-time beloved by those of us in the youth group, and I remember keenly feeling a special kind of grace from them in the midst of my unpracticed yard work skills.
For many of us, community service begins something like this. We hear of a need and respond to it. Peoples’ yards are overgrown, and we have hedge trimmers; kids are falling behind in math, and we have accountants with free time on Tuesday evenings; families are struggling to get enough protein after a parent lost one of her two jobs, and the synagogue does a peanut butter drive. Problem solved. Right?
In my work in the Office of Community Engagement, we do a lot of service that looks much like what I’ve described. Hundreds of students each year go on alternative break trips and build a house with Habitat for Humanity, or tutor kindergartners each week at Matthew Whaley, or prep and deliver healthy meals to our neighbors in public housing. And that solves the problem, sort of. A family gets a safe, stable and affordable house that they can call home. A child gets the attention that she longs for and needs to be able to progress at school. And a family has the energy they need to focus for the joys and challenges they face every day.
Our goal, though, is that our service goes a little deeper than addressing the challenges before us as a community by solving them as isolated problems, and that our students begin to see the bigger equation. So we make sure they understand the issue ahead of time by having them seek resources and to learn in some depth about that issue. In a place known for its beautiful housing, why do so many struggle to find a permanent home? Why do children need volunteer tutors in kindergarten, when schools are supposed to be fully staffed? What does hunger look like in our community? What policies and choices make each of these struggles a reality for so many of our neighbors and friends?
We take that educational process, and add to it their participation in community service, and conversation with others who are serving along with them to reflect on their experience. Through this process, our students start to see that bigger picture – the master equation, perhaps, or the root causes that lie behind the need for their service in the first place. Then the next time they build, tutor or serve, they might do so better. And ultimately, our hope is that this process equips them to take action on a bigger scale so that the isolated problems don’t have to be solved one by one, but ultimately we can create communities that come together to heal and bring wholeness so that all can reach their full potential, not just stop gaps so that no one falls through.
This may sound like a pretty academic approach. Just get the students to study the issues, talk about it, and keep going back, and boom! things change.
What we know, though, is that this equation of community service can’t be easily reduced to study + service + reflection = change. Because what keeps most of us going back is that elusive, and sometimes unplanned for, connection that comes about when we step outside ourselves to interact with others we might not otherwise have met. When people know that we take them as seriously as we take ourselves, and when we get to know them with honest curiosity, there’s a kind of secret math that makes that whole – the relationships we develop through service – greater than their sum.
For a while after college, I volunteered as a Writer in Residence for a community arts program in my neighborhood in Philadelphia. I have to confess to liking the hoity-toity sound of my title at the time, but what it looked like in reality was me, up in front of a room of fifth graders – some of whom had never written more than a partial sentence and were in fact, more interested in slamming each other up against the wall – grasping at how to teach them to write poetry. As I sought resources for this daunting job, I met with a man who had done similar work in area schools for years. He had actually written the book on it. So he recommended lots of resources to me – including that book he had written – and others that had writing prompts and poem starters. But perhaps most helpfully, he told me that I absolutely had to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Friere, a man who was born in Brazil and developed critical pedagogy theory through his work as an educator around the world.
Maybe some of you have read it, too. But just in case, this is the part that blew my mind, and gave me helpful images and terms that helped me better articulate my understanding of what it means to “serve,” through the lens of education. Friere talks about how so often, educators become the “narrating subject” while students become the “listening object,” receptacles of knowledge who are expected to then be able to dish that exact knowledge back out. He calls it the “banking concept of education,” in which students – expected only to “receiv[e], fil[e] and stor[e] the information” are reduced to receivers of knowledge, not those who can explore it, mix it up or transform it in any way. And the outcome of this is that hierarchies between student and teacher are deepened.
What he proposes instead, is an approach focused on inquiry, where dialogue is central between the student and teacher, and where both are changed in the process. And the result is, as he says, “a constant unveiling of reality,” which helps people realize their “vocation of becoming more fully human.”
Of course, he says a lot more than that. But I bring these words to you today because for me, they touch on the soul of not just education, but also community service. I think it was brilliant for that poet to suggest that I read Friere, because the heart of his message isn’t only true about teaching. It points to how we should be interacting with each other, particularly when we’re in contact with people who are in some way different than us. If we do service right, with humility and curiosity, and looking for ways we can all change, service helps us become more in touch with reality, more connected to each other as we break down hierarchies, and it centers us in the deep pursuit of what it means to become fully human.
It puts us in touch with what in South Africa is known as Ubuntu – that people are people through other people, and that we can’t exist as humans without each other. Service isn’t just about the little acts we do, but about the big things that can happen – in our hearts and in our societies – when our vision and perspective is changed like this.
That’s what happened to me when I was hacking away at bushes at the homes of my fellow church members when I was a teenager. And that’s what happened to me in those Philadelphia classrooms, and later as one of the students happened upon me as I gardened in my front yard after class one day – and she continued to stop by and help me water and weed from time to time.
I’m betting that’s what’s happened to you, too, as you’ve been engaged in service with WindsorMeade. Along with so many others who have experienced the broadening that happens beyond what we might expect when we embark on this adventure of growth and love, I am happy to celebrate that with you.
May 28, 2013 by Ryann Tanap
It’s been a year since I graduated from W&M, took a leap of faith and moved to Thailand – completely on my own. Since I’ve been abroad, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the most inspiring people. I teach English at a school in the mountains. It’s a remote village, and the nearest city is a six-hour bus ride away. The hotspots to go to during the day are the 7-11 and a couple of coffee shops in town. It’s quiet here. There are no tall buildings, lanes of traffic or smog hanging in the air. Instead, I see mountains and rice fields in the valley below the school. But I’m not alone. In fact, I feel more immersed in a community than I ever have before. I didn’t think that was possible, especially after going to W&M for four years – the College will always be my second home.
It wasn’t easy to get here, to this point of contentment, to this place of peace in my life. I have never lived on my own before (with the exception of a summer internship, but I had random roommates for that experience), let alone move across the world to a completely foreign environment, only to immerse myself in a culture far from my own. Here, the languages I hear the most are Thai and northern Thai. My students come from hill tribes and their native languages are Karen, Lawa and Hmong. English and Chinese are taught at the school where I work, though no one is fluent in either languages other than the native speakers (I’m the native English speaker at the school, and we just started our Chinese program so we have university students from Guanzhou, China on rotation here to complete teaching internships).
Moving abroad for an extended period of time (though, now that I’ve been overseas over ten months, I feel like it’s just short-term), can be a big change. If you’ve never been out of your comfort zone before, this is certainly the way to do it. I’ve encountered a variety of hurdles along the way, but nothing was impossible. Everything until now has been an experience or lesson for me, and has certainly made me more open and understanding of the world.
So, if you’re preparing for a big move (be it to a new city, a new part of the country, or halfway across the world), do not fret. And if you’re thinking that one whole year overseas is a long time, I would say it most certainly is not. Time moves a lot faster than you’d think. If I could, I would stay here even longer. I feel like I just arrived and my job here has just begun.
Just the other week, I was talking to one of the teachers here.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea if you go back to your country. You have to stay here,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I’ll miss you,” she responded.
I’ll miss her, and all of the teachers and students here at my school, more than she’ll ever know.