I Dropped Out of Grad School To Become a Missionary

 What’s the most crazy, outrageously impulsive thing you’ve ever done? 

I was not an impulsive kid. I was unhappy and anxious, but I did what was expected of me for the most part. I also learned early on to carefully watch for opportunities – an extension of  a survival instinct. I rarely did the unexpected with the exception perhaps of joining the track team. A friend had commented approvingly on how fast I could run and urged me to try it. No one had EVER suggested I had athletic skills so I did try out. Not exactly crazy impulsive though. 

During my senior year of college, I was completely lost – what to do with my  life? I hated what I learned about Capitol Hill during my internship with then-Congressman Rick Santorum and knew intuitively that I did not have what it took to survive in that world. Someone suggested graduate school, I was a good student and the next thing you know – I’m on my way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That was a little impulsive and a little crazy because I had no interest in becoming a college instructor, yet I was in the Master’s/Ph.D fastrack – probably because I was a woman in a male dominated field – and while I hated it, I liked the learning part.

Until I didn’t. I was unhappy and depressed at the prospect of spending my life in the Ivory Tower – I liked teaching, but it felt so pointless and mundane. My colleagues were struggling for jobs and I rebelled against the “rules” of academia – you wouldn’t be hired to teach at the level of school where you earned your Ph.D, you’d have to step down and maybe step back up again. That left me with the option of a government job.Ugghhh. I grew more and more depressed and unable to finish my master’s thesis. I just had a huge mental block about it.

So I QUIT. And ran away to Western Kentucky to work in a social service ministry program. I shocked everyone – I was a good student and I was walking away from a scholarship to go to Kentucky? What? I was unhappy with sexism so I was going to Kentucky? What? Everyone was shocked and appalled. I barely got B’s much less DROPPED OUT.

Todd County Interfaith Community Center
Todd County Interfaith Community Center

I had decided that I wanted to actually help people, but I knew that the Peace Corps was too much for me. I was young and had no family, no pets, no obligations except my car loan. It was now (then) or never to do something impulsive. So I researched “Teach for America” type programs (thank god I didn’t do that one) and found this program that would send me to Western Kentucky to help in a community center. It sounded great. I was accepted and so in September 2005, I drove to Clifty, Kentucky and moved into a rented house with a woman I had never met before. We underwent a three-month training and the adventure was on.

The town had no red lights, nothing was open after 7 PM, most businesses were in double wide trailers and the population was 2% Catholic. It was as different from Pgh as Louisiana had been. I had very little money or resources. I wasn’t trailed in anything but political philosophy. I had no peers. It was frightening and overwhelming. And crazy.

I don’t regret leaving Baton Rouge and LSU – I wish I had left sooner because I lost time there being miserable and unproductive. Sure I wish I had been able to complete my master’s degree and thesis, but I don’t think it would have had much impact on my life – I would still have left and gone to Kentucky and been unskilled and realized I needed to pursue an MSW degree. My education at LSU was still with me and helped me breeze through Pitt, the degree itself wasn’t necessary.

Kentucky didn’t go or end the way I planned, but that’s the whole point of an impulsive adventure – I can honestly say that I learned a lot about myself and had a much better understanding of what I wanted to do with my life, as well as what it would take to do that effectively. And nearly 20 years later, I look back with pride at the fact that I was brave enough to throw caution to the wind and find what I needed. I sure couldn’t do that now. What did I miss out on – years of being a server or a bartender or something like that? Nothing wrong with those experiences, but I don’t think they would have led me to a different path.

If I had to pick a point in my life when I “grew up” – it would be those years. I was so naive when I arrived in Clifty. Those weren’t easy years or easy lessons. I was introduced to some appalling experiences and realities. Still, I wouldn’t wish them away. Being impulsive and crazy served me well because it moved me further along my path.

I realized pretty early on that I was a voluntourist even if that concept wasn’t in use. I was working through the Church and we did A LOT of work on culture among ourselves. I attended three grueling workshops on “Undoing Racism” that probably changed me more than any other class I’ve taken – that’s where I first learned about white privilege and I was the only one in my class who was like “of course, that’s what I have” – it never occurred to me to say “but” because it was so – obvious? Not to say I’m this enlightened being, just that the lessons I learned in Kentucky reinforced the lessons I learned from The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. They were right – this experience was about me, not the people in the communities. I didn’t realize that that meant until many years later.

But when I reflect on that time, I tend to share my stories – and that’s a conscious choice. There are no stories of people who I helped – there are stories of people who let me into their life. I did a lot of shocking (to me) stuff – confronted drug addicts to rescue teenagers, harbored women and fleeing abusive husbands, chased a car that appeared to have kidnapped a young woman, things that might be considered brave or rescuer-like. But I tend to think more about the things I couldn’t do (build housing, fix cars, open a soup kitchen.) I am the one who benefitted from their willingness to engage me.  It is false humility to pretend I did no good – I handed people food when they were hungry. That was compassion and it taught me to tackle hunger. To want to do that. ”

So I ran away to do social service work. What was your big crazy impulsive thing?


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