by Diane VanDyke
Service does not have boundaries for Grace Pusey, who believes in helping people in need no matter where they are located, even if it means traveling across the country or around the globe to India.
“I’ve always been interested in how things work. I’m also the kind of person who always needs a project,” Grace says. “What better project than to learn how social systems work and how I can improve them?”
This modest, soft-spoken honor student recently received the Newman Civic Fellow Award from Campus Compact, a national coalition of more than 1,100 college and university presidents. Newman Fellows are student leaders, who, through service research and advocacy, seek to find the root causes of social issues to create effective solutions.
For Grace, her social awareness started in her childhood. She recalls how she used to despise sitting still, especially during long church services. To help her cope, her parents encouraged her to read books about great leaders, such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt. Reading about these activists inspired her, and as she grew older, she developed a more dynamic spiritual path.
During the summer of 2010, Grace put her faith into action by visiting Biloxi, Miss., in June as part of a church mission trip and then by traveling to India to help teach children.
In Biloxi, Grace and fellow members of Palm Schwenkfelder Church helped the residents of Biloxi—who were still recovering from Katrina, as well as the effects of the BP oil spill—by painting houses, doing small repairs and working in the food pantry.
Then, from June through August 2010, Grace spent eight weeks in Faridabad, India, helping children through Prakash Deep, a non-governmental, non-profit organization that provides free education, lunch and basic medical care in a friendly and safe environment for under-privileged children. She also volunteered at the ERC School for the Disabled, an orphanage for children with physical and mental challenges.
“Service learning is an utmost priority for me – I don’t think my education would be complete without it,” she said. “Plus, I’ve always wanted to go to India and improve my Hindi.”
Initially, Grace found teaching to be somewhat challenging. Although she could speak a conversable amount of Hindi, she had to learn a Haryanvi dialect, which includes a lot of the language Urdu. She helped the younger children read Hindi and the older children speak English.
“Savita Datt, the founder of the school, told me most parents were illiterate and did not know their rights,” she said. “Hindi is important for understanding the rights of Indian citizenship, and English paves the way to better jobs.”
The living conditions, she says, were deplorable. Most of the people lived in tarp huts with little or no access to safe drinking water. Many of them endured skin diseases and fevers from diseases carried by mosquitos. To tolerate the intense 115-degree heat, Grace wore a cotton salwar kameez, the traditional clothes of northern India.
“Since these experiences, I feel more like a world citizen,” she said. “I am more conscientious and mindful about what other people endure. I would like to return again.”
Along with her desire to help distant neighbors, Grace continues to serve her local community, church and school.
During her teen years, she was active in the youth group at church and the KEYS community service club in high school. At Montgomery County Community College, she served as president of the Student Government Association (SGA) at West Campus in Pottstown in 2010-11.
Led by Grace and Central Campus SGA President Antonio Marrero, SGA started the NoH8 Campaign to promote acceptance, awareness, and accessibility of campus resources for students and to declare MCCC a “Harassment-Free Safe Zone.”
In April 2011, Grace with other SGA members lobbied against the governor’s proposed budget cuts to community colleges by traveling to Harrisburg to meet with several legislators.
Additionally, Grace co-chaired the College’s inaugural Relay for Life event to raise money for the American Cancer Society and to honor her mother’s commitment to service.
While Grace was helping children in India, her mother passed away after a long, difficult battle with Crohn’s Disease. However before her death, she told Grace how proud she was of her for following her dreams and helping others.
“It was a commitment I inherited from her and a hope she instilled in me,” she said, noting her mother was instrumental in shaping the mission-oriented character of Palm Schwenkfelder Church, a large part of which was fundraising for the local Relay every year.
“Starting a Relay at MCCC was just an idea SGA Central Campus Vice President Josh Schwartz and I tossed around–I never expected we’d end up running with it,” she said. “I owe Josh an arm and a leg; without him it wouldn’t be the most successful first-year community college Relay event in the United States. It’s a great opportunity to honor the myriad of inspiring people I’ve met at MCCC and show our state representatives the importance of our school to the community.”
Beyond SGA and Relay for Life, this Pennsburg resident serves as a Peer Mentor helping other students adapt and engage in the college environment. She is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa international honors society, the Scholastic Gold Key Society and the Palm Schwenkfelder Church’s Board of Missions.
Her plans for the summer of 2011 include working with Wellspring UCC, a church in Centreville, Va., to assist South and Central American day laborers in finding temporary employment.
Following her graduation from the College in fall 2011, Grace plans to transfer to Penn State University’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences to study Geography and then pursue a career in community development.