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Lee Capristo, editor
The Mulberry Tree
Phone: (240) 895-4795
18952 East Fisher Road
St. Mary's City, MD 20686
The Peace Corps recently announced that St. Mary's College of Maryland is ninth out of 28 small colleges in the nation for per-capita alumni volunteerism, up from 18th last year. The Colleges were ranked according to how many alumni are serving in the Peace Corps, and St. Mary's' total of 19 placed them firmly into Top 10. This article investigates why we have so many service-minded students and introduces some of the Peace Corps volunteers to you.
by Meghan A. Sullivan '08, English Major
As the cold winter winds licked the campus last February, this year’s commencement speaker, Richard Moe, addressed the senior class in Goodpaster Hall. President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Moe asked the seniors an intriguing question: “Why do you think St. Mary’s is ranked ninth in the country for contributing volunteers to the Peace Corps?” After eliciting various answers from students—such as our sense of community and the numerous leadership positions available on campus—Moe gave President Maggie O’Brien the floor. President O’Brien attributed the College’s large number of Peace Corps volunteers to three qualities at our institution: 1. stewardship (including taking care of the land); 2. political activism (feeling that we can change things); and 3. opportunities to lead (including executive positions in student clubs). “Service is about who we are as an institution,” President O’Brien said.
We decided to investigate this a step further: What forms this stewardship and political activism? Does St. Mary’s look for first-year students who value serving others? Does something about St. Mary’s attract service-minded individuals? Or—as we joke among ourselves—is it something in the water? What about the St. Mary’s experience molds students into people likely to join the Peace Corps? To get to the bottom of this mystery, I contacted members of the campus community.
Students, faculty, and staff seem to agree that many new students first step foot on this campus with qualities conducive to serving others. The kind of student who picks St. Mary’s already appears to be brimming with passion and dedication, social justice and responsibility, and global and optimistic thinking. While Wesley Jordan, dean of admissions and financial aid, says that Admissions does not specifically seek students with community service records, the application for admission does require prospective students to pick one item from their résumé and describe why it is important. Many students, Jordan says, choose to write about service activities. Jim Hanley, career adviser in the Career Center, adds that numerous students whom he assists with résumés have a history of community involvement—dating back years.
New students armed with these qualities then find a caring, close-knit community of students and faculty. Ashleigh Heck, coordinator of Orientation and Service in the Office of Student Activities, describes St. Mary’s as “a very caring place. Faculty, staff and students, for the most part, take care of each other, and I think that makes them more apt to be interested in and more qualified for service-based positions beyond college.” Jordan observed that in a small, rural community with most students living on campus, older students have many opportunities to communicate with younger students. This proximity enables them to share their study-abroad experiences and their community service experiences with other students. Meg Ingram ’08 says that “students pass their passions on to their friends and learn about the amazing things they do.”
Furthermore, St. Mary’s offers students many opportunities outside of the classroom, including the semesters abroad and study tours, which introduce students to global perspectives and different cultures. St. Mary’s program in The Gambia, for example, provides students with glimpses of what Peace Corps life entails. For Jeff Faith ’08, who joined the Peace Corps this June, a study tour in India largely influenced his desire “to work with economically underprivileged people and focus on educating young people to hopefully end poverty in the long run.”
Home to more than 100 clubs and organizations,St. Mary’s also provides students with opportunities to serve on a local scale. Service clubs, such as For Goodness’ Sake, Circle K, Habitat for Humanity, and the Rotaract Club, focus on meeting the needs of the community. Jeff credits his involvement in For Goodness’ Sake for showing him the many ways in which he can help the world. Other organizations also help the community; the baseball team, for example,volunteers in local elementary schools.
St. Mary’s environmental club, the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), has become increasingly involved in the community over the last few years. Music major Tyler Sinclair’08, who will soon serve with the Peace Corps,joined SE AC his freshman year. “By senior year,I was vice president, after beach clean-ups and green- power lobbying and wearing a Lorax suit,” he says. St. Mary’s location on the river appears to reinforce environmental activism in students like Tyler. St. Mary’s River may, in fact, also contribute to the sense of service overall. When I walk past the river, I cannot help but notice its beauty, and I think that this beauty helps students realize that there is more to life than the individual.
According to students and staff, the St. Mary’s experience also fosters self-reliance, risk-taking and patience. These qualities are ideal in the Peace Corps. Former Corps volunteer and St. Mary’s alum Ross McKim ’97 thinks that St. Mary’s and the Peace Corps share similar philosophies. St. Mary’s students, he believes, are “quiet changers…. more in the line of community activism—Habitat for Humanity or community development—rather than banner waving or street protests,” he says. “That goes right along with the Peace Corps philosophy and work ethic.” As is St. Mary’s remote location. “St. Mary’s is a pretty remote college in a highly populated state. You chose to separate yourself from everyday society. The Peace Corps is all about separating yourself from American society and living in remote places.”
Wes Jordan points out that St. Mary’s students also may not be driven by the stress of a regular career track. “Students are more casual about career tracks because they have multiple interests,” he says. Committing to two years in the Peace Corps is often the perfect next step for our graduates. “Students leave St. Mary’s with less of an inclination to rush into graduate school or a career path,” says Tyler, “and more of a desire to explore a lot of options and use their degree as a gateway to the world.”
Meg Ingram believes that “there is the spark to serve in each student and St. Mary’s brings it out.” For Tyler and Kim Dula ’08, who will soon serve with the Peace Corps in Moldova, St. Mary’s sparked their willingness to embark upon adventures in the Peace Corps. “I have always wanted to go into the Peace Corps,” Kim says, “and I think St. Mary’s helped me to realize that I can.” Looking back over his four years at St. Mary’s, Tyler admits, “I left high school assuming that I would find direction and purpose in college; I was banking on my future self to suddenly know what I wanted to do and find the means for doing it. However, St. Mary’s did not have that effect, and I am profoundly thankful…[St. Mary’s] helped me to realize that I wanted to and could serve with the Peace Corps, because there was no good reason why I couldn’t.”
The large number of St. Mary’s graduates entering the Peace Corps may still be somewhat of a mystery, but I think the St. Mary’s community has the right idea: service is about using our skills to aid the world. “But,” as President O’Brien reminded the senior class on that cold February day, “it’s also about having fun.”
As Ross McKim muses: “I remember taking a class called ‘The Solitary Search for Truth.’ I can’t see that course being offered at the University of Maryland. People who join the Peace Corps are interested in traveling a slightly different path.