After spending a year as a Young Adult Service Corps volunteer teaching Xhosa children in Grahamstown, South Africa, Travis Shields, 23, has decided to change the course of his life.
Rather than pursue a Ph.D. in medical physics, he's decided to study medicine with the hope of one day again serving in a missionary capacity, he said.
Shields was one of 12 YASC volunteers, each recently returned from an overseas assignment, who gathered at the Episcopal Church Center in New York last week for a "re-entry retreat" -- a time to share their experiences, joys and challenges.
YASC offers Episcopalians ages 21-30 an opportunity to spend a year abroad working as mission partners with a local church, monastery, seminary or other Anglican Communion program. The program requires volunteers to raise $10,000 to help cover airfare, living expenses, medical insurance, a $500 monthly stipend and other related costs. Volunteers often receive support from their dioceses and congregations.
There are eight YASC volunteers in the field today; the deadline is Jan. 9, 2012, for new volunteers.
Shields, of the Diocese of Texas, lived at the Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery, and taught grade "R," the equivalent of kindergarten, in its recently formed school.
As an undergraduate, Shields studied physics. In Grahamstown, he taught a class of 13 boys and girls, none of whom spoke a word of English at the start of the school year. By the end, they "had full understanding," he said.
The most rewarding thing about his experience, he said, was being in relationship with people, especially the children who approached him with "unbiased curiosity."
Adjusting to a monastic life proved most difficult for Shields, who wasn't used to spending so much time alone, but in the end, he said, "Being alone never got easy… but I learned to be alone and enjoy myself and be self-sufficient."
On of the big things volunteers learn is how to be adaptable, said the Rev. David Copley, the Episcopal Church's mission personnel officer, who oversees the YASC program.
"In terms of leadership development skills, being adaptable and responding to situations that are outside their normal frame of reference creates a strength of character," he said, adding that being flexible is helpful in developing valuable life skills.
Spencer Cantrell, 23, delayed law school admission one year to spend a year volunteering with migrant laborers in Hong Kong, an experience that renewed her commitment to working for human and women's rights.
Cantrell volunteered with the Mission for Migrant Workers, a non-government organization sponsored by St. John's Anglican Cathedral. She spent the year offering counseling and legal advice to domestic workers, mostly women ages 20 to 60 from Indonesia and the Philippines, who often work 16 to 18 hour days, six days a week for $450 per month. There are some 250,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. Some of the women become indebted to the employment agencies that brought them there; others have to fight their employers to get paid, and some work in horrendous conditions.
"Many are abused and mistreated," Cantrell said. "There are many horror stories. One woman took too long walking the dog and her employer ironed her hands and her face. There were other cases of women being beaten and raped.
"We empowered them to stand up for themselves."
The work, said Cantrell, who was available to clients by cell phone 24 hours a day was, at times, "emotionally draining."
Cantrell, of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, is now a first-year law student at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. She was a women's studies major as an undergraduate.
Jonathan Pregill, 24, of the Diocese of Northern California, spent a year in the Diocese of Central Ecuador, where he taught elementary school at the cathedral school in Quito, and also did everything from after-school tutoring in English to working as the diocese's librarian and as a translator to helping establish an acolyte program at the cathedral.
"I felt like I needed to take on a larger role," he said. "I didn't want anyone to think I was there on vacation."
Pregill plans to pursue a master's degree in public policy and then go to law school. He was inspired by his work with Colombian refugees -- there are hundreds of thousands of Colombian refugees living in Ecuador -- who struggle to navigate complicated immigration and human rights laws.
For now, Pregill is living at home with his parents in Susanville, California, and working as a AAA regional office manager. He deferred his graduate school enrollment for one year because he'd planned to serve another year in Ecuador, which is now undergoing a total restructuring, derailing his plan.
Joanna Philley, 26, of the Central Diocese of New York, read about the YASC program in an Episcopal Life cover story in November 2009, and spent the last year working in the administrative office of the presiding bishop of the La Iglesia Anglicana de México, in Mexico City.
Philley, who studied education as an undergraduate, plans to return to Mexico to teach elementary education or English, or both, she said.
Both her church, St. James Episcopal Church in Clinton, New York, and the diocese were very supportive of her when she was a YASC volunteer and have been supportive of her return to Mexico to pursue other opportunities. Philley also has been active with helping to form and facilitate youth groups in the church in Mexico.