Dr. Joe Paul, vice president for Student Affairs at The University of Southern Mississippi, implores students constantly to remember one basic tenant: “Leave it better than you found it.”
Garrett Wright, 21, a senior construction engineering major from Gulfport, Miss., has taken that challenge to heart.
Wright, who is scheduled to graduate in December, has parlayed a commitment to community service into national recognition as a recipient of the Pearson Prize for Higher Education. He joins a group of 20 students honored as Pearson Prize National Fellows.
“My immediate reaction upon learning that I had been awarded the Pearson Prize was disbelief,” said Wright, who is also pursuing a minor in business. “I knew that there were over 20,000 students who had applied and that many of those who applied had completed some astonishing projects. Plus, I knew it would have been easy to have been passed over by the selection committee because many of the students were from Ivy League schools and the competition was tremendous.”
However, Wright’s compelling video documenting his efforts to construct an outdoor classroom for students at Hawkins Elementary School in Hattiesburg, impressed the judges. The Pearson Prize, which comes with a $10,000 award, honors students who have distinguished themselves through public service while completing their post-secondary studies.
While lauding Wright’s achievements, Paul expects even bigger things from the former Harrison Central High School graduate.
“We are very proud of Garrett Wright. He is a young man who has seized every opportunity offered him through Luckyday Citizenship Scholars and our Office of Community Service Learning and turned them into leadership lessons,” said Paul. “His future is bright.”
Wright conceived the idea for the outdoor classroom from discussions with Hawkins Elementary Art Director and Volunteer Coordinator Sharon Miles, who bemoaned the fact that students had no place to safely study outdoors during school hours.
With the help of volunteers from the university and the local community, the project got underway in last April and was completed before the end of May. The Hawkins PTA supplied money for the materials, while Wright and his cohorts provided the labor. To Wright, community service means more than token gestures and convenient lip service.
“Students should want to serve their communities because it is where they live and could possibly be where they find a career when school is completed,” said Wright. “One of the main things students need to learn from serving is that service does not end when school is finished. It should continue for as long as you are able to make a difference in the community.”
Wright is on track to obtain his undergraduate degree in just 3 ½ years. He plans to enter graduate school next spring then possibly pursue a law degree. His long-term goals include owning a commercial construction business or becoming a public servant in the political arena.
When asked to define leadership, Wright says the duty goes far beyond simply overseeing a business or student group.
“To be an effective leader, I believe that a person must serve and help grow those that they lead,” said Wright. “If a leader does not make the business or organization that they are leading a better place, then what has he or she accomplished? A true leader must take the initiative to make the community a better place and not wait for others to complete the task.”
To view the video of Wright’s construction project at Hawkins Elementary visit http://pearsonfoundation.org/pearsonprize/2011/fellows.html