Roanoke grad learns the gift of giving

Laura Mulcahy ’03 joined the Peace Corp to teach children and raise HIV/AIDS awareness.

Some say Laura Mulcahy '03 is a risk taker. She left the States after graduating from Roanoke, moved to the University of Essex in England for graduate school and then joined the Peace Corp in 2007. However, Mulcahy feels that her decision to venture to the far corners of the world is far from risky: it's fun.

Mulcahy majored in "pure, unadulterated" sociology at Roanoke, focusing mainly on sociology throughout her four years at the institution. She then packed her bags for a two year long stay at the University of Essex, about 45 minutes northeast of London. She found that her graduate program had many of the same characteristics of Roanoke's undergraduate program. Her classes were small; she had close bonds with her professors and advisors, and she received individual attention. Mulcahy's main "scheme" consisted of seven other graduate students, which made her feel at home.

Dr. Gil Dunn, associate professor of sociology, was especially close to Mulcahy during her stay at Roanoke, guiding her through her classes, as well as teaching her senior seminar class. Dunn said that she has great talent and has the drive to make an impact on the world.

Dunn noted her love of learning. "She would go to museums on her spare time in England; she is very well read, and she acts independently. Whatever she does in life, she will always learn."

The sociology faculty taught Mulcahy how to connect her own life to the theories of sociology and how those theories affect society as a whole. Knowing that close bonds with professors is beneficial, she felt comfortable treating her professors at the University of Essex with the same regard as her professors at Roanoke.

"This was familiar ground for me, coming from Roanoke College, where, by your senior year, you are seeing the same 10 or so faces in your classes," she said. "I also felt comfortable approaching the university staff for advice and friendship because I was encouraged to do so at Roanoke College."

At the University of Essex, Mulcahy became especially close with her primary advisor Dr. Lucinda Platt, who teaches issues related to child poverty, poverty dynamics, ethnicity, welfare state history and comparative public policy. Mulcahy found great guidance in Platt and was able to connect Platt's research with her own dissertation, titled "Gifting Charities: Using the Custom of Gift Exchange for the Alleviation of World Poverty." It focused on issues of gift giving in practical terms and aimed to have immediate relevance for today's issues.

"Reciprocal giving is a social fact, and I used that with the gifting charities in a 'pay it forward' idea," Mulcahy said.

She spent almost a year working diligently, surviving the harsh weather that even heating and air conditioning could not regulate and maintaining her sanity as best as possible.

"We pulled a lot of overnighters, spent plenty time in the pubs unwinding, only to go back to our computers in the morning, and we all managed to get it done, and with merit no less," Mulcahy said.

Upon completion of her dissertation on Sept. 8, 2006, Mulcahy was adamant on traveling and experiencing life. She knew she didn't want to go back to the States to work an office job, especially after her eye-opening year and a half in Europe. On an impulse, Mulcahy filled out an application for the Peace Corps and was on her way to the Eastern Caribbean months later to work at community development. Mulcahy works mostly with children at the primary school in her village. She has reorganized and run the school's library and has set up an afterschool homework club for students. She also exercises with some of her neighborhood children in the early mornings and mentors them in her free time. This year, Mulcahy is co-teaching a special education class of 15 students with a local teacher. She said that working with students is always rewarding and a bit challenging.

"To see their little faces go from scowling and discouraged to the slow dawning of understanding and finally enthusiasm is wonderful," Mulcahy said. "The feeling I get is almost like relief-that you are doing some good."

Mulcahy also has been part of an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign and has helped make a television commercial aimed at encouraging people to get tested. About one percent of the population in St. Vincent is HIV positive, but it is estimated that up to five percent are actually infected, she said. Even though these numbers seem small compared to Africa, St. Vincent faces more problems because it is a contained population.

Dunn said that Mulcahy exemplifies what a liberal arts education can do for a student. Dunn said that Roanoke strives to develop individuals who are life-long learners, and those people will consequently inspire others to do the same.

"The liberal arts education improves the ability to deal with unstructured situations," Dunn said. "[Mulcahy] is a good example of that."

Mulcahy also believes that Roanoke gave her the tools to succeed in life and the determination to take a risk. Her experiences at the College gave her the upper hand in dealing with unfamiliar territory and taught her to give back to those in need.

"I think Roanoke College did well cultivating the spirit of service, giving me plentiful opportunities to volunteer while I was there," Mulcahy said. "[It gave me] a solid foundation to build my sense of self, the confidence to go out all over the world in order to build that sense of self and many lasting friendships, which I continually draw on for support."


About the Author

Laura Scuffins '09 was an English major who interned in the Office of Public Relations. She was editor of the campus newspaper, The Brackety-Ack, and a member of Chi Omega sorority. Laura also was a member of Roanoke's track team for 3 years.