Whitties take on world one service organization at a time

Whitties take on world one service organization at a time

Kelsey Kennedy

The class of 2011 will disperse to locations across the country and the globe after the graduation ceremonies conclude on May 22, but  a passion for public service remains a common thread in many seniors’ post-Whitman plans.

Whitman College is known nationally as an institution that promotes altruism, consistently ranking as a high contributor to service-oriented organizations. In 2010, Whitman ranked thirteenth in Teach for America’s list of the top-20 small colleges and universities to contribute graduating seniors to the program. The Washington Monthly rated Whitman the third strongest contributor to Peace Corps among liberal arts colleges.

This year’s graduating seniors are no exception. Several Whitties will participate in renowned international and national service organizations such as Peace Corps, Teach for America and AmeriCorps.

Senior Joe Wheeler is joining Peace Corps and leaving for his assigned country, Mongolia, in a matter of weeks. In Mongolia, Wheeler will spend three months in an intensive training program before he is placed in a community where he will teach English to children, help other teachers develop curriculum and aid in development programs for two years.

The challenges Wheeler will face in Mongolia range from practical : negative 50-degree weather in winter : to philosophical.

Some critics of Peace Corps claim that the governmental organization, originally founded in 1961 as part of President Kennedy’s Cold War policy, promotes American imperialism abroad. This is an issue Wheeler, a self-proclaimed critic of the United States government, grappled with when he made the decision to join Peace Corps.

“I want to close my mouth and open my ears and not assert any sort of cultural ideal [in Mongolia.] I believe the U.S. is not on the better end of a progress spectrum, it just has greater access to material wealth. I want to understand material inequality in developing countries,” he said.

Wheeler hopes to apply this experience as a Peace Corps volunteer to future study and a career. He is particularly interested in the Shriver Peace Worker program, a subsidiary of Peace Corps, at the University of Maryland. In addition to studying public policy or international development, Wheeler would take courses in ethics to gain a philosophical perspective on his topics of study  and do community service work in Baltimore.

Senior Laura van der Veer is preparing to work for a governmental program that is closer to home:  AmeriCorps, which partners with local and national non-profits across the country. She will be working at Grandma’s House of Central Oregon, a relief shelter and education facility for pregnant teens and new mothers ages 12-18. Since van der Veer is considering a career teaching Spanish in a secondary school setting, she sees this experience as a valuable opportunity before she goes on to graduate school.

“This position gives me the chance to see if that age group is what I want to teach and it’s a trial run for my future career,” she said.

AmeriCorps was an especially attractive opportunity for van der Veer due to its short-term commitment and the educational stipend she will receive that can be applied to graduate school or to pay off student loans.

“Since I didn’t want to go straight on to grad school the Student Engagement Center suggested that I do a program with a clear endpoint after one year.”

Margaux Cameron, class of 2010 alum, is reaping the rewards of this educational stipend. Cameron is currently doing an AmeriCorps program in Spokane, Wash.  She will be attending the University of Denver Publishing Institute this summer to begin pursuing a career in book publishing with her tuition almost completely covered.

Despite these benefits, working for AmeriCorps has not been without its challenges for Cameron, who has done her AmeriCorps work through the Washington Reading Corps, a statewide organization that strives to improve literacy at the elementary school level.

“Coming from a middle-class background with a stable foundation in education, it’s often very difficult for me to understand why the children I work with are so low in their reading ability. I do have some students with learning disabilities or distractions, but most of their issues are environmental (such as absent/un-encouraging parents), which I have very little control over,” she said in an e-mail.

However, there is much gratification to be gained.

“A third-grade boy who is probably closer to me than any other student was disrespectful to my co-worker and other students, and I kept him afterward to talk to him about why he had gotten in trouble. Even though he was still upset, he listened to me and told me calmly why he had acted the way he had. It was really rewarding to put into action the trust I had built with this nine-year-old over the past few months simply by helping him with his homework and always being happy to see him in my classroom,” she said.

Senior Kate Newman, who will be teaching secondary English in Colorado through Teach for America, foresees similar challenges, citing resistive students, faculty and staff as potential hurdles she will have to overcome. Consequently, she did not take the decision to make this tw0-year commitment lightly.

“Actually accepting the TFA offer was a really, really difficult decision for me. I took almost up until the last minute to actually accept. There is a lot of controversy over whether or not TFA is actually a beneficial program for kids, and I was not going to make the two-year commitment without considering those points of view. But, ultimately, I felt like it is a chance to do some good and help some kids out, even if it’s not going to fix the entire education system, which it will not,” she said.