It all started with Laura Godwin’s seventh birthday.
“I decided that I didn’t want presents; instead, all of the people who came to my birthday party were supposed to bring presents for the battered women’s shelter,” said the William & Mary senior.
Since then, Godwin has continually looked for ways to serve others, working with homeless and elderly people in her hometown of Richmond, tutoring middle school students in the Williamsburg community and helping the orphaned and hungry abroad. That commitment to service has earned her the 2014 James Monroe Prize for Civic Leadership, which Godwin will receive during William & Mary’s Charter Day ceremony on Feb. 7.
The prize is annually awarded to an undergraduate who has “demonstrated sustained leadership combined with initiative, character and an unfailing commitment to the ethic of service.”
“Laura is a compassionate individual and demonstrates great commitment to community via her work on campus and the Williamsburg area,” said Austin Pryor, coordinator of education programs in the W&M Office of Community Engagement. “The real heart of her leadership is her phenomenal ability to leverage the strengths of those around her and push them to reach their full potential.”
Growing up, Godwin found ways to serve through the Girl Scouts, school and church. In middle school, she helped feed homeless people in her hometown, participated in “30-hour famines” to fight hunger around the world and worked with Impact Richmond, helping to repair houses for the elderly.
“At the beginning of the week, you think that you’re going to go and help fix a house up and that you’re going to make an impact on them, but then at the end of the week, you realize, yeah, I helped them with their house, but what I learned about myself and the people that I’m working with and the community I live in is way more important,” she said.
In high school, she continued to participate in her church’s mission trips and interned with Embrace Richmond, helping people who recently transitioned from being homeless to having a place to live. She also helped her teachers tutor other students and worked with kids as part of the Stars of Tomorrow camp for lacrosse and field hockey players.
When she began at William & Mary, she knew that service would remain a big part of her life. As a freshman, she was a member of the Sharpe Community Scholars program, an opportunity that she called “eye-opening.”
“I never really learned about service as a learning tool. … I was just very interested in learning about what it means to be educated through your service and civic engagement,” she said.
Her dovetailing interests in education and service led Godwin to get involved with Project Phoenix, which provides tutoring to middle school students in three Williamsburg-area schools. The first student she was paired with was born in China and spoke very little English. The two had to use Google translate to communicate during most of their sessions.
“Slowly over the entire year that I worked with her, it was amazing to not only see her English improve, but her grades improve because she was getting support in the school,” said Godwin.
Godwin has continued to work with Project Phoenix over the last three years, eventually taking a leadership role in the organization.
Throughout her time at William & Mary, the sociology major has also served as a peer advisor and a small group leader for high-school girls at the Williamsburg Community Chapel. During her sophomore year, Godwin also traveled to Nicaragua to work in an orphanage.
“It was one of the best weeks of my life, especially since I had been studying in sociology class income inequality and poverty and different aspects that people are going through,” she said. “I had seen pretty dire poverty in Richmond, but I had never seen it quite like that in Nicaragua.”
Although seeing that level of poverty was tough, it was also humbling, said Godwin, because the people she met were so happy with what they had.
“So are the kids I work with here [with Project Phoenix],” she said. “They may not be in the best situations or they may have parents in jail or are in foster care or don’t have the experience I had growing up, but they nonetheless are very happy with life.”
It’s a lesson she keeps in mind as she and her fellow students face schoolwork concerns.
“All of that’s important, but if you aren’t enjoying life, none of that’s important,” she said.
As she begins her last semester at the university, Godwin said that she is happy that her service has allowed her to see more of the Williamsburg community than many students often see.
“I think sometimes we feel like we live in the four blocks that are William & Mary, and we forget that it’s much bigger than this and that there’s more to it than just graduating in four years,” she said.
Godwin hopes to continue serving after graduation, with her dream job being a position in a college community engagement office
“I would love to encourage people to get involved in small ways or big ways,” she said. “For me, I think that civic engagement can be just as simple as having a conversation with the people that serve you at Starbucks or the lady in the checkout line in the grocery store.”
Because one of the things that all of her service has taught her is that people matter.“Sometimes it does take getting out of your comfort zone working in a middle school or working in downtown Richmond to realize that you matter and so do the people you’re working with.”