Institute of Life Purpose Celebrates Milestone in Number of Students Putting Service First

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MACON – In the past year, Mercer's Institute of Life Purpose celebrated its 100th volunteer who has traveled overseas to participate in a year of service following graduation through an initiative called Service First.

Service First is a “connector program,” said Dr. Scott Walker, senior lecturer and director of the Institute of Life Purpose. “We find good service organizations and connect graduates to them.”

All told, Service First has sent 116 graduates to 10 different countries throughout the past seven years. Currently, five volunteers are in Thailand, two are in Haiti and four are in the Dominican Republic.

One of the service organizations, Teach Thailand Corps, was established by the American-Thai Foundation in collaboration with the Yonok Foundation to strengthen primary and secondary education in high-need areas. Recent Mercer graduates, such as Fulbright Award recipients Lena Hamvas and Precious Patterson, spent a year teaching English in Thailand as part of the corps.

“A year spent teaching English in Phichit, Thailand, a city as large as Macon, was an experience that prepared me to understand the foundation of cross-cultural interactions and living abroad,” said Hamvas, who is currently serving as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Jordan. “The new culture demanded my attention and unlocked compassion I never knew I had.”

“I was assigned to teach in Bamnet Narong, Thailand, a rural village that values clean energy,” said Patterson, who is working toward a Master of Science in Renewable Energy, Enterprise and Management at Newcastle University in England. “I passed by solar farms on my way to class everyday, and one day, the idea of getting involved in renewable energy policy crept into my head. The more I thought about it, the more my passion for the subject grew, and I decided that I had found something worth pursuing.”

Two new programs were launched this year in Haiti, where volunteers are teaching English to primary school students and working with public health clinics, and in the Dominican Republic, where volunteers are teaching English to primary and secondary students in collaboration with a local university. Additional volunteers have served in previous years in China, South Korea, the Philippines, Liberia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and the U.S.

“Teaching classes of students where you wish you could say so much more to is challenging,” said Christina Vasquez. “The reward, however, is that I returned home with a perspective that shapes so many of my decisions today, including valuing the people closest to me. By the end of my journey, I logged more hours of learning than teaching.”

“I was part of the first group to participate in the Teach Thailand program,” said Charles Peterson. “We all had expectations of exploring an exotic destination. When our group first met, we talked of the places we'd travel, the things we do in the upcoming year. A year later, at our last meeting, the conversation was starkly different. There had been time for travel, for fun and exploration. We'd been to festivals, rode elephants and discovered new favorite foods, but those things weren't the core of what made the experience memorable. When asked what 'made' our time in Thailand, the answer was always the same – the students.”

The one-year break that Service First provides between the completion of undergraduate study and entering graduate school or the workforce “gives students a global perspective beyond what study abroad provides,” said Dr. Walker.

“Going to China, getting to know people and listening to their opinions and the way they felt about the world taught me that even in my better, more enlightened moments, I was constrained by a Western worldview that limited my understanding of global issues and America's role in them,” said Phillip York. “My degree at Mercer taught me about the existence of other such perspectives. Participating in Service First allowed me to grasp the power and scope of those perspectives, and move beyond mere appreciation of their existence.”

Service First also “serves as a really good opportunity for students to strengthen their portfolios,” added Dr. Walker.

Alumni have gone on to attend graduate programs, law and medical schools at Mercer and numerous other prestigious institutions, including Oxford University, the London School of Economics and Political Science, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, Florida State University, Louisiana State University, the University of Tennessee and Emory University.

They also include recipients of Fulbright Awards, Boren Fellowships, Robertson Fellowships, Phi Kappa Phi Scholarships, a finalist for the Marshall Scholarships and several participants in the Peace Corps.

“Service First gave me the opportunity to figure out what I really wanted to study when I went to grad school, and it turned out to be international affairs,” said Alicia Jonah, who has since earned her master's degree from Florida State.

“Living in Thailand broadened my worldview, helped me to gain confidence, blessed me with many lifelong friendships, and helped prepare me for the challenges of law school and the challenges that will follow,” added Erica Burchell, a third-year student at Mercer Law School who will graduate in May.

Dr. Walker grew up as the son of missionaries in the Philippines. At the age of 14, he returned to his mother's hometown of Fort Valley upon the death of his father.

Dr. Walker graduated from Mercer in 1973 and worked for the Foreign Mission Board for a year before attending the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He went on to become a pastor at First Baptist Church of Athens and earn his Ph.D. in adult education studies from the University of Georgia.

After spending most of his career as a senior pastor in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, he realized in his 50s that he wanted to refocus on his doctoral work and teach young adults about life purpose. He proposed the Institute of Life Purpose to Mercer President William D. Underwood as way to address perhaps the most difficult and compelling questions in the life of a university student.

What is the purpose of my life? What do I most want to experience and achieve in adulthood? How do I define and articulate my emerging life-dream? What are my unique attributes and greatest abilities? How can I best utilize my university years to actualize my life's purpose?

In addition to Service First, the institute offers courses, information sessions and seminars related to life purpose, international service opportunities and teaching English as a second language, in addition to counseling.

“I've become much more self-aware, much less anxious about the future, and much more grounded as a person. I find myself worrying less about things that would have mattered a great deal a year ago. I've certainly become more appreciative of family and friends, of the things that I have, and the things that I've accomplished,” said Rebecca Hutcheson. “Overall, the inner peace that Thailand has given me has been overwhelmingly constructive.”

“Throughout my time in Thailand, I was able to reflect and understand myself better. I grew as a person physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually,” added Steffiny Kallickal. “After serving in another country, I realize that I control the pace of my life. What I may want to happen in my future may or may not happen, and that's OK. Thai people have a saying, 'mai bpen rai,' which means 'no worries.'”

For more information on the Institute of Life Purpose or Service First, contact Dr. Walker at walker_rs@mercer.edu.