Volunteerism from the heart
Kelsie Overton enriches her academic life with service
Kelsie Overton’s nearly four-year involvement with the Bunting Center for Engaged Study and Community Action at Birmingham-Southern all began with the simple notion that “it’s not all about me.”
From her first months on campus as a freshman, her motivation was to give back to the world and try to leave it a little better than she found it. It started with posing a question to herself: “What am I doing to make things better for others?”
“As I became more involved with the Bunting Center, I found my motivation becoming less and less about giving back and more about taking in new experiences, new places, new people, new cultures, and new ideas,” says Overton, who is a senior religion major and Harrison Honors Scholar from Brentwood, Tenn. “Now my desire for service is to understand and to connect with my community and the world and with those who are different from me.”
Overton found that stepping out of her comfort zone was one of the best decisions she ever made. She volunteered with Urban Kids, a local afterschool program, her freshman year and is now serving as a BSC liaison for that partnership. In 2011, based on her experience as a BSC Hess Fellow at the General Board of Church and Society, Overton planned a service-learning Alternative Spring Break to Washington, D.C., to educate and teach students about advocacy. She also facilitated two Habitat for Humanity building projects last year with high school and college students. During January Exploration terms, she has worked with the YWCA Central Alabama and MainStreet Birmingham in the local Woodlawn area to learn more about Birmingham and the issues facing its communities, and she has traveled to Ghana, Africa, to teach English to fourth graders. She will travel to India during the 2013 E-Term on another monthlong service jaunt led by Bunting Center Coordinator Jackie Walker and Assistant Professor of Religion Dr. Mark McClish.
This past September, Overton was placed by the YWCA to serve as an AmeriCorps volunteer with Leading Edge Institute. LEI is a nonprofit leadership organization that gets college women together to work on critical issues affecting Alabama. Overton’s role as program coordinator includes contacting participants to fill out various forms, sending out invitations, and planning various activities. She also supervises three other volunteers at LEI.
All of her experiences have helped her to stay focused and make the most of her time in college.
“I have really learned a lot with my position at Leading Edge Institute,” Overton remarks. “I’ve been able to serve directly with the executive director and the program director, which has given me insight into how to run a good nonprofit. I think the inspiring aspect of serving with LEI has been the opportunity to meet a lot of powerful women leaders in the state and to see the network of people and organizations that want to empower women to lead Alabama to a better future.”
Overton serves up to 45 hours a week depending on how much school work she has. AmeriCorps volunteers are mostly college students or recent graduates who commit to a year or two of full-time volunteer service in exchange for a modest stipend or education award.
Overton has been civically invested in her community for as long as she can remember. She says she was always involved and busy in high school and never minded taking breaks from academia and being spontaneous to do other things in life.
“I chose BSC after I visited the school for a scholarship competition and found out about its service learning and leadership program opportunities,” she noted. "I knew at that point that BSC was special, and I was right too. Our service-learning program was ranked one of the best in the nation recently.”
After her trip to India in January, Overton will be finished with her coursework in religion. She says she was drawn to the religion department because of the amazing discussions that take place in the classes. She is finishing up her senior capstone project for her major on the subjects of structural violence, HB 56, Christianity, and Nativism using research from a wide variety of sources.
“I’ve taken plenty of classes related to the Middle East and Judaism,” she says. “I love the fact that the professors have studied so much and are so intelligent, but they are still comfortable not knowing. In religion, ‘I don’t know’ can be an extremely wise answer. I find that to be exciting; it means you can go down various academic avenues and learn so much.”
The second capstone project she is working on this semester is for the Honors Program entitled “The Education System from the Educator’s Perspective.” For this project, she interviewed three outstanding local educators and is focusing her research on key education issues and what sort of creative solutions are possible.
“I’ve found BSC to be a supportive and nourishing environment,” she notes. “I have learned a lot about myself and the world at BSC and that is because of the great community that exists here. I could describe many instances where professors, classmates, and staff members have been there for me in a way that was above and beyond what I would ever have imagined.”
After graduating from BSC, Overton plans to continue serving at her AmeriCorps position until the end of August.
“After that, ‘who knows?’ she says with a grin. “I’m thinking about going to Ghana to teach. I hope I learn a little bit more of myself by August so that I can pursue a career that will help me to come alive. Because of my service-learning experience, I know it will have to include things like reflection, connecting with the world and people, honoring human dignity, and working for justice.
“Service learning has been the remarkable thing about my time at Birmingham-Southern. I’ve loved my classes and the traditional academic setting, but I have learned the most valuable lessons from the college’s Bunting Center and Hess Center for Leadership and Service. Leaders like Kristin Harper ‘92 [director of the Bunting Center] have mentored, guided, and encouraged me into understanding better how to really connect with people who are different from me. I think I’m learning one of life’s biggest lessons in a way that I could learn nowhere else.”
*About 70% of BSC students engage in community service each year.
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