The Marshall Islands in the central Pacific felt like home to 2001 Most Valuable Student scholarship winner Jeremy Staley, but it wasn't because the tropical landscape resembled the cornfields of the American Midwest where he grew up. His hometown of Celina, Ohio, has more than one road and a taxi ride wouldn't cost 50 cents. During his four years studying Liberal Arts at Notre Dame, he never ran short on fresh water. But, Jeremy saw himself in the Marshallese people, particularly the children he taught through a one-year volunteer program, and he learned that life on a remote tropical island wasn't so distant after all. Jeremy shared with us his experience, what he learned, and why he thanks the Elks for helping to make his dreams come true.
ENF: Why did you decide to volunteer with World Teach after college? JS: The opportunity to work in international development after college fascinated me. I wanted to work in an area of the world that I felt was under-privileged and under-exposed. After doing some research, I discovered WorldTeach, which aims to bring talented and dedicated volunteers to international teacher-shortage areas. As for choosing the Marshall Islands over the other host countries, let's just say that spending a year on a tropical island was a hard offer to refuse!
ENF: What was the greatest challenge you faced while living in the Marshall Islands? JS: I remember being initially shocked at how poor many of my students were. They lived in tiny homes shared by extended families, and they rarely had the luxury of running water or even shoes. The children were generally unaware of what possessions they did not have compared to the standard of living in other nations of the world. It was frustrating to accept the fact that these incredible, talented and deserving children would grow up with so little compared with what I had as a child. It was a challenge at times to focus on teaching my responsibilities when such larger concerns seemed to loom overhead.
ENF: How was life different there than here? JS: A typical day in the Marshall Islands involved a lot of laughter and a lot of humidity. There is no available freshwater besides the rain, and at any given point, the island is no wider than two football fields. My school sat on the edge of the reef, facing the ocean, and each morning at 8 a.m., the principal would hammer a rusty scuba tank (our school bell) to summon the kids to class.
ENF: What was the most important thing you learned while living abroad? JS: I am convinced now, having not only lived in the Pacific but also a short time in Europe, that human beings are fundamentally similar and good-natured throughout the world. Underneath our appearances, we all share the same basic desires, fears and joys. Being a teacher taught me how connected we are as human beings and how we all share responsibility for children growing up across the globe. The Marshallese children I lived among are indistinguishable from their counterparts an ocean away. Children everywhere love to be valued; they are amazed at discovery; and they try to master the balance between shyness and curiosity.
ENF: What have you been up to since returning to the U.S.? JS: I had a few quick months to unwind; catch up on lost time with friends and family; and finally enjoy some luxuries like delivery pizza and drinkable tap water. In late August, I moved to Phoenix to accept a job as a development associate with Teach For America. I wanted to remain in the field of educational development while gaining exposure to the administrative side of a successful non-profit organization. International advocacy has always been a passion of mine, and eventually I would love to return to work in a developing nation, specifically supporting governments in creating effective educational infrastructures.
ENF: How did the ENF's Most Valuable Student $4,000 scholarship affect your college experience? JS: The ENF's Most Valuable Student scholarship was a powerful springboard to the success of my undergraduate years. Growing up in a small town, I was uncertain whether I could or would be ready to succeed at a nationally prestigious university. When you chose me for the MVS award, however, I began to gain confidence that I could compete with students on a national level. As a first-generation college student, this scholarship helped me begin to understand how my academic achievements could overcome my family's financial shortcomings. With the scholarship, the pressure to choose a university based on affordability was greatly reduced. It brought me one crucial step closer to attending Notre Dame University, which I had dreamed of attending since elementary school. I was equipped both financially and mentally to fulfill a dream. Thank you for that opportunity.
ENF: Where do you see yourself in 10 years? JS: On our last day of school in the Marshall Islands, I made a special promise to my sixth-graders that in 10 years, I would be at their college graduation ceremonies. So, undoubtedly, that's where I'll be.
To learn more about Elks National Foundation scholarship programs, including two scholarships exclusively for Elks families, visit www.elks.org/enf/scholars/ourscholarships.cfm.