Around the World and Back Again
In 2019, two St. Mary Alumni, Ben Smith ’14 and Sam Whittaker ’11, found themselves nearly 9,000 miles away from Paducah, Kentucky serving in the Peace Corps. Smith was accepted into the Peace Corps after graduating from University of Kentucky in 2018 and took a position in rural Tanzania working as a Health Extension Volunteer. Whittaker received his bachelor’s degree from University of Louisville and his master’s degree from University of Cincinnati before teaching history in the Mississippi Delta with Teacher for America for two years. He then joined the Peace Corps to teach middle and high school English in a remote community in Madagascar.
Unfortunately, COVID cut Smith and Whittaker’s Peace Corps terms short and in early 2020 they returned to the United States. Smith’s return brought him back to Paducah and to St. Mary where he is known as “Mr. Ben” to the students he works with each day in the St. Mary Preschool. “One of the most important things I learned in the Peace Corps was resiliency. My return to the U.S. due to COVID was sudden and threw my plans out the window, but I knew I still wanted to find work that was meaningful while waiting to start medical school. St. Mary is great place to give back and serve others.”
Smith has been accepted to the University of Louisville Medical School this fall, but his time at St. Mary as both a student and staff member continues to influence him. “St. Mary felt like a close-knit community to me growing up. It nurtured teamwork and concern for others, not just concern for yourself. When I think about my future, I want my life to be one of service, and I think St. Mary really planted those seeds of service in my life.”
Whittaker’s return to the U.S. brought him back to the familiar territory of a classroom. He joined the faculty at Gulf Port Central Middle School in Gulf Port, Mississippi and currently teaches 7th grade history. His varied teaching experiences have given him a unique perspective on his own St. Mary experience. “At St. Mary learning is important and success is important. I realize after teaching that not every child has the same kind of support that St. Mary gave me. I took that for granted as a student, but as a teacher I realize how rare that environment is.”
As he thinks about the future, he is considering law school or pursuing a PhD as a possible next step. Whichever path he takes, he knows he wants to be working to alleviate poverty. “Being a part of Teach for America and the Peace Corps is how I approach my faith. St. Mary instilled that faith in me. It gave me that sense of community and informed my understanding of social justice.”
That sense of service to others is part of the very mission of St. Mary. We are proud of these two alumni and the countless others who are committed to living out the St. Mary mission of “selfless sacrifice” and becoming “a positive influence on others.”