Cultivating Human Connection Through Service Learning

Whitney Wilkerson ’95 participated in two service projects while at George School, traveling to Nicaragua during her junior year and Vietnam during her senior year. Through those trips, Whitney learned the power of human connectedness, and later created the Gateway Fund to create opportunities for George School students to find meaningful experience through service.

“When I arrived at George School, service learning was a new concept to me,” Whitney explained. “It was not prevalent at the places where I had been educated at before George School. In fact, it is one of the main reasons I chose to enroll at George School. I was amazed at the opportunity to travel and see a part of the world beyond a ‘taking’ capacity, but in a giving and receiving capacity.”

Heading to Nicaragua, Whitney anticipated the language barrier to be the biggest challenge. “While in Nicaragua, I discovered that words are only one form of communication and that I was able to form strong relationships despite the limitations of my burgeoning Spanish skills. I anticipated having a lot of fun, and I did, and I came home exhausted. There was a lot of learning, doing, and adapting to a new climate and culture that was more intensive and rewarding than I expected.”

“At the time, I might not have been able to put words to the experience,” Whitney continued. “The work camps (now called service learning trips), in retrospect, gave me an opportunity to see the breadth of humanity. In fact, I went back to Nicaragua during college and spent a year-long study abroad program living with the same host family who I stayed with during my junior year at George School. My relationship with that family was the central theme of my college thesis, and I returned again after graduation to live with them in Nicaragua. To this day, I remain in close contact with my host family. We have a text stream on WhatsApp running at all times. I still get Las Mañanitas sent to me, which is a song that is sung very early in the morning on someone’s birthday. We are close. The matriarch of my host family has even come to the US to visit me. I built a lifelong relationship with them thanks to my work camp experience.”

To Whitney, service learning is, at the foundation, about humanity and relationships, deconstructing the concept of the other, and from a Quaker perspective, seeing the light from within. “Creating the Gateway Fund was a no-brainer. Service learning was, by far, one of the most impactful aspects of my George School experience, and I was so privileged to be able to participate in those trips. When I created the fund, I wanted to remove boundaries and create more opportunity for students to learn about themselves and others by participating in these trips. One of the benefits of traveling outside of your nucleus, whether domestically or internationally, and one of the gifts of moving outside of our immediate community is that we open ourselves up to the possibility of change–both being changed and being a part of creating change. There is nothing more powerful than that.”

“Attending George School was a powerful agent of change in my life. It was a very important milestone in my journey that was enriched by the service learning trips,” Whitney described. “Helping to create more access to those types of experiences for others was an enlivening thought for me. It is exciting to witness students opening their eyes and hearts, expanding their sense of what is possible, and it reminds me of my journey in expanding, learning, and growing while at George School. Each time I hear about the students heading out on their trips, it is an invitation to check in with myself and make sure that I am showing up in the world in a way that was modeled to me by George School and by those service learning trips. It is a reminder to check my compass and make sure it is pointing in a direction where my value system and heart want to point towards.”

Whitney continues to engage with the world through service in her life today. “I am an Executive Coach and Interfaith Chaplain. My work brings me close to people by helping them navigate the most joyous and sorrowful moments in their lives. I help them navigate moral dilemmas and find meaning and connection in their lives. Through my work, I see that interconnectedness and relationships with each other are all that we have. My training is rooted in Mahāyāna Buddhism. In some ways, we operate from a similar worldview as Quakers by acknowledging the interconnected web of life and seeing the light, or Buddha nature, within. That is why service learning projects matter. It is like planting a seed of connectivity in students’ minds and opening a worldview that sees the gestalt in it all–that what I do impacts others and vice versa. There is a cultivation of responsibility and self-awareness. I am currently writing a book that examines the loneliness epidemic in the US as a spiritual disease. My sense of community and connection is very much informed by my experiences in finding humanity through travel and service.”

Whitney invites others to give to the Gateway Fund to create opportunities for George School students to participate and grow through service learning. “I would like to encourage everyone to donate to the Gateway Fund. When I started the fund, it was my hope that others would remember what a potent experience they had doing service at George School and contribute, in some way, to keep the cycle going.”

If you are interested in supporting service learning at George School, please contact the Advancement Office to discuss ways that you can make a difference at any level of giving.