UWC-USA is pleased to once again be hosting an alumni fellow as part of the Alumni-in-Residence Program (AIR). Mary Ellen Mitchell ’99 is spending the semester on campus working with students in a variety of ways, most noteworthy, bringing students together around faith-based initiatives.
The focus of her work on this residency is the result of many years of honing her own career path, a journey that began in Northern Kentucky where she grew up. Prior to applying for UWC-USA, Mary Ellen was interested in politics, speech and drama, Model United Nations, and travel. The combination of these passions led her to apply to UWC after hearing about it from a mailer. Like many students, her application came as a surprise to her parents. However, after agreeing she would remain in the United States, they embraced her decision, seeing how it was a perfect match to her interests.
In Montezuma, Mary Ellen focused her studies on anthropology and economic development which led her to Emory College, where she continued to pursue her interest in economic development, especially as it relates to women and economic sustainability. A grant from the Ford Foundation opened the door for her to spend a month in Ghana, hosted by Naa Aku Addo ‘00, where she saw firsthand the positive effects of initiatives such as micro-banking and the ways women, provided the necessary resources, could positively impact an entire community.
From Ghana, Mary Ellen traveled to Nepal to see UWC, classmate Smiriti Lakhi ‘99 and visited a women’s economic project called Maiti Nepal. Maiti Nepal was established in 1993 by a group of socially committed professionals in order “to protect Nepali girls and women from crimes like domestic violence, trafficking for flesh trade, child prostitution, child labor and various other forms of exploitation and torture.” While the missions of the organizations that Mary Ellen became involved in were ones she felt passionately about, Mary Ellen didn’t see the actual implementation in alignment with her world view.
“The ex-patriot communities were not fully integrated in the communities they were there to serve” she explained. For the first time, her eyes were opened to the negative effects of white privilege. The colonial model of imported resources was not sustainable and promoted what Mary Ellen observed to be a polarized culture of us versus them. She returned to Emory in search of a different career path, one where she could work closer to home and more directly with people in a community where she was not an outsider managing large government grants.
After her junior year of college, Mary Ellen decided to take a break from school and travel to Mexico City. It was there she first worked with a faith-based organization. Their approach changed her life. She felt the faith-based approach coupled with her interest in economic development provided a whole new way to be in community and work with others. Mary Ellen discovered that she was deeply interested in creating a career that was focused on community service and that also had a spiritual foundation.
Eventually Mary Ellen founded Lydia’s House, a non-profit shelter for homeless women and their children. With a specific mission for helping women become self-advocates, Lydia’s House operates with a spiritual lens and provides shelter for women needing to build community and find housing. Their programs not only offer access to traditional therapeutic counseling and subsidized housing, but helps women get in touch with their own beliefs, connect with others in meaningful ways, and stay in a network of support well beyond their shelter stay.
Mary Ellen comes full circle with her return to UWC-USA this past semester where she has worked with students who are interested in exploring their spirituality. During this time of sabbatical from Lydia’s House, Mary Ellen pitches in wherever needed, such as chaperoning the Southwest Studies trip or assisting with weekend field trips. With her 12 year old daughter, Annie, she also helped stage a production of The Emperor’s New Clothes (pictured above) featuring the children of many of the staff who live on campus.
The Alumni in Residence Program (AIR) is open to all alumni who wish to engage in day-to-day student life and share from their area of expertise while supporting the residential and administrative initiatives. Alumni who are interested in the program can contact Reed Baumgarten (email@example.com) for more information.