Space to dream: Alumni choose vocations of service

  • A life of serviceGeorge Srour ('05) is the founder and executive director of Building Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that builds schools for children in sub-Saharan Africa. He is one of many William and Mary alumni who have chosen vocations of service following graduation. Srour visited campus recently to talk about his experiences.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

    A life of service
  • In UgandaThe seeds for Srour's nonprofit were sown when he visited "Meeting Point Kampala," an orphanage in the slums of Uganda's largest city, during an internship in his junior year through the United Nations World Food Program. On the trip, he recognized that there was a real and sustainable way to help the millions of vulnerable children in Uganda and throughout the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

    Photo courtesy of George Srour

    In Uganda
  • William and Mary supportStudents at "Meeting Point Kampala" give a thumbs-up to William and Mary during their first day of classes in their new building in 2006. Srour said that people at the College have been at the forefront of the Building Tomorrow movement.

    Photo courtesy of George Srour

    William and Mary support

Since starting a nonprofit organization to build schools in sub-Saharan Africa, George Srour ('05) has had plenty of "I can't believe this" moments -- on both ends of the spectrum.

For example, there was the time when he realized that he had only $23 in his bank account. But then there was the moment more recently when he walked into one of his organization’s schools in Uganda and saw students wearing uniforms with "Building Tomorrow" logos on them.

"There are different things that come with my job than others, but I don't see it as a sacrifice." he said. "I really enjoy what I do, and I really love it. If I wasn't doing this, I wouldn’t have the chance to be here and I wouldn't have the chance to do what we do in Uganda. To me, being part of that is worth a lot more than what people in more 'normal' jobs have."

Srour, who visited his alma mater recently, is just one of several recent William and Mary alumni who have gone on to create their own nonprofit and service organizations. The alums are representative of a nationwide trend in which members of the millennial generation are choosing to start nonprofit organizations dedicated to outreach as opposed to traditional careers. This phenomenon was recently covered in a Washington Post article titled, "For This Generation, Vocations of Service."

"In recent years we have been witness to a virtual explosion in interest in international service," said Drew Stelljes, director of the College's Office of Student Volunteer Services. "George is an example of the long-term impact of the programs. It is after graduation that our alumni, like George and others, are making a commitment to a lifetime of engagement toward solving the issues that plague communities - near and far."

Along with Srour, other recent William and Mary graduates who have gone on to begin nonprofit organizations include: Cosmo Fujiyama ('07), co-founder of Students Helping Honduras; and Edward Branagan ('03) and Doug Bunch ('02), founders of Global Playground.

Even if they have not gone on to begin their own nonprofit organizations, many alumni have also chosen careers of service following their graduation from the College – oftentimes as a result of their service experience at William and Mary.

For example, J. Abbitt Woodall ('02) volunteered with Williamsburg’s Housing Partnerships, Inc. as a student. Now, he is the executive director of the organization, which provides "vital housing repair services to very low-income individuals, and families who are unable to help themselves due to sickness, disability, or lack of financial resources," according to the organization's Web site.

Like Woodall, Srour's current vocation grew out his many service experiences at William and Mary. During his freshman year as part of the College's Sharpe Community Scholars Program, he created an e-government survey for the City of Williamsburg. In 2003, he raised more than $25,000 to help replace trees on campus that were downed by Hurricane Isabel, and he collected more than 1,000 signatures for a banner that was delivered to the parents of David M. Brown, an alumnus who died in the space shuttle Columbia’s explosion.

But the seeds for Srour's nonprofit were sown when he visited "Meeting Point Kampala," an orphanage in the slums of Uganda's largest city, during an internship in his junior year through the United Nations World Food Program. On the trip, he recognized that there was a real and sustainable way to help the millions of vulnerable children in Uganda and throughout the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Inspired, he returned to William and Mary, and began the "Christmas in Kampala" campaign, which raised almost $45,000 to fund the construction of a new school in Kampala, Uganda.

Today, Building Tomorrow has 15 chapters in colleges across the country, and they expect to break ground on their seventh school in Uganda by the end of this year.

"I am proud that William and Mary provided George with the tools to carry on his work and as George would attest it must be our aim to provide more coordinated efforts to prepare the next generation of students to accept the challenges that George has," said Stelljes. "George is a wonderful example of how alumni remain involved in serving and become mentors to current students. We look forward to George's many, many visits to his alma mater in the years to come."

On one such recent visit, Srour talked with students, faculty and administrators about his experience and ways that the College can support the increased interest in social entrepreneurship. He said he wanted to let students know that he was in their shoes very recently.

"I think that oftentimes people think of social entrepreneurs as folks who decide in their mid-life that they aren’t doing the kind of good in the world they'd like to--they switch tracks and go on another route. But I've found that – and I think it's worth sharing with students -- that you can be a social entrepreneur the second that you graduate. You can even do it while you're a student," he said.

Srour said he would advise anyone looking to start their own nonprofit to conduct a lot of research and define how their organization would be different from all the rest. He also said that students should be open to all of the opportunities and experiences that they have at William and Mary, and not worry so much about having a lot of money at first.

"Looking at the field as this kind of exciting field that has a lot of aspects to it, the big thing is to allow people the space to dream about what they think they can do, but at the same time, encourage them to be somewhat pragmatic about it," he said.

The support of the William and Mary community was instrumental in bringing Srour to where he is today, he said.

"I had found a group of people and a place that was going to be able to help and be supportive of what I wanted to do past William and Mary," he said.

And as he built his nonprofit, William and Mary people were "at the forefront of the movement," he said.

Similarly, he thinks that the College has the potential to be at the fore of the national movement of his generation toward social entrepreneurism.

"I think social entrepreneurism is in many ways what is at the heart of what goes on at this campus," he said. "We definitely have the capacity to be one of the schools that people talk about. We just have to find a way to bring together the resources we have and make it happen."