Imagine this for a brief moment: I’m sitting in my classroom of 52 4th graders in the Metolong/Ha Makotoko village in a tiny country in Southern Africa called Lesotho. I spent two years down there teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer. My first day teaching was one I’ll never forget. As I walk into the classroom, students are running around screaming, and I can barely find any chalk to begin the lesson for the day, Greetings and Introductions. I felt it was appropriate since I hadn’t gotten the chance to meet all of my students, only there was one tiny issue; the language barrier. In Lesotho, the Basotho speak Sesotho. Ke tla qala mokoko ka Sesotho is a sentence in Sesotho. I was assigned to teach English… only my students didn’t really speak English. You can imagine where this is going. I’m trying to get everyone’s attention, everyone seated, and everyone listening, but to no avail. It is then that a distinct cheer popped into my head.
And you better believe that arm movements were involved. The students immediately stopped what they were doing and looked up with curiosity. I did the cheer again only a little louder and managed to get a few kids to join in. Then the flood gates opened. Kids just started screaming letters. “Bua Hape hape, repeat after me.” Then I broke down the room into three letters. “J-M-U, J-M-U, J-M-U,” and everybody joined in for the final “Dukessss.” Smiles were abounding and my students were participating in a timeless tradition half way across the planet. Before I knew it, time was up. I didn’t manage to teach a single thing from my lesson plan that day, but at least I taught my students the JMU cheer! I even got it on video.
I’ll admit that the previous story isn’t the most conventional for most of you. After all, the Peace Corps isn’t for everyone. However, I want to remind you that what you learned at JMU can be utilized anywhere in the world, in the workplace, in your personal life, and yes, even in the Peace Corps.
As a recruiter for the Peace Corps, I have the privilege of going back to JMU every month to inspire fellow Dukes to serve overseas. The students that I meet are remarkable. They are exceptionally motivated to be the change, to make a positive impact in the world. You see, JMU students and therefore alumni, have this spark inside that is so desperately needed in the world. Each of you can attest to that. The unparalleled willingness to serve others. The desire to create authentic and intentional community. It is rare and it something to truly be cherished.
I want to share with you one of my favorite quotes by Marianne Williamson titled Our Greatest Fear. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” It is that light, or in this case the JMU spark, that sets us apart from most. And it is something that deserve to be shared often and with many.
At JMU, I was involved in various organizations. As a Student Ambassador, FROG, and OPA, I was surrounded with service-minded people. I was also surrounded by enthusiastically affirmative people. I was regularly engaging with my peers, reflecting, using icebreakers, practicing group facilitation skills, etc. I was creating community. I had no idea how valuable those tools would be outside of college. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had the opportunity to direct my own girls’ leadership camp for my community. Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) is a movement all over the world that empowers young women to continue their education by teaching leadership skills, sexual reproductive health, HIV/AIDS awareness, and reflection exercises. When I began to create the programming for the camp, I had the sessions all ready to go due to my previous retreats and resources from previous leadership classes. Again, when I was a student, I had no idea that those lessons and exercises would be used to empower the next generation of female leaders halfway across the world.
Once I returned from Peace Corps, my JMU spark followed me and continued to open doors. I began to activate my Madison Network. I got involved with the Graduates of the Last Decade, GOLD Network Board, and started participating in my local alumni chapter’s events. I’ve participated in Madison Network events by sharing my stories with current students and alumni. I’ve joined the President’s Council and actively supported influential programs on campus. I’ve inspired young alumni to give back through time or treasure to causes they are passionate about. I have gained life-long friends and connections because of my Madison Network. I encourage each of you to do the same with your network and your spark.
Now I embolden each of y’all to take a moment and think about what you can do with your JMU spark. Whether, it’s sharing your love of purple in the workplace, reflecting on old journals from college and sharing life lessons with your kids, or even teaching your students the JMU cheer, I wish you the best with your Madison Experience.
Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Matthew Merritt left the capital city and received his bachelor’s degree in Spanish and global justice studies from James Madison University. Once graduating in August 2013, he joined the Peace Corps as a primary english teacher in Lesotho, Southern Africa. As a volunteer, he taught 6th and 7th grade students English literacy, comprehension and critical thinking skills. He also co-facilitated after school sessions on life skills including HIV/AIDS mitigation, gender equality, and character development. Once he returned from his service in December 2015 and after a brief period of time on the Appalachian Trail, he moved to Charlottesville, Virginia and is currently Peace Corps’ Regional Recruiter for Central and Western Virginia. He is a current a board member of the GOLD Network and shares his love for JMU any chance he can get.