(Editor’s note: Spring Break is a time where many campus ministries take students on mission trips. The immersion experience is often identified as transformational and life-changing. As you think of your financial support, consider contacting one of the campus ministries or church-related schools to see how you can support such experiences for students like Jaclyn)
By Jaclyn Tekiela
Illinois State University Wesley Foundation
“My name is Jaclyn Tekiela, and I was a member of the Illinois State University Wesley Foundation while completing my undergraduate degree from 2009 to 2013.
I was a busy student; in addition to classes, I was also in several student organizations and the Big Red Marching Machine. Of all the different groups and activities of which I was part, Merge at ISU Wesley has left the biggest impression on my life.
When I first started classes at ISU, I was a special education major. Ever since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. In high school, I volunteered in a special education summer school class and took part in a work-study program in an elementary school classroom during my senior year. I thought I had everything figured out: my major, my career, and my perfect five-year plan.
A few semesters into my special education curriculum, I started to realize that teaching might not be what I wanted to do for my career. I loved getting to work with students of all different ages and abilities, but there were many other aspects of teaching that were difficult for me. I decided to push through, hoping that it was just a difficult semester of classes getting to me.
During this time, I got more involved at Merge. I made so many great friends, got involved with the leadership team, and started singing in the worship band. Merge became a place I felt comfortable to explore my faith, and a place I felt safe enough to share my doubts about my future. I also took part in the spring break mission trips, which opened my eyes to a whole world of new opportunities I didn’t know existed, and ultimately changed my life.
I went on my first mission trip during spring break of 2011. Forty members of the Merge congregation traveled to Miami, Florida, to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Miami. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I was honestly a little nervous about the whole trip. A few of my friends from marching band had recently gotten me involved in Merge, but I was still rather new and didn’t know a lot of the people there.
It was on this trip that I first learned about a program called AmeriCorps, which offers national service opportunities around the country with nonprofit organizations like Habitat for Humanity. Over the course of the week, I worked with an AmeriCorps service member named Danielle, who taught us how to use power tools and walked us through several home construction projects. I spent a lot of time talking with Danielle about how the program worked and how she first got involved. I returned to ISU after this mission trip feeling even more connected to my faith and with thirty-nine new friends - and with the thought that I might have other options if I decided teaching wasn’t for me after all.
I continued on in the special education program and kept hoping that I would have that “ah-hah” moment where everything felt right and I could feel confident that this was really what I wanted. I didn’t forget about AmeriCorps, but I buried that idea to focus on getting through my three semesters of student teaching.
During my senior year, and my second student teaching placement, I reached my breaking point. My class was a life skills class, meaning I had a group of high school students ages 14 - 21 with intellectual disabilities whom I taught skills like cooking, using public transportation and computer skills on top of the general school subjects like math and language arts. I’ll never forget those students; I loved getting to know them and feeling like I might be making a difference in their lives, but the most meaningful connections I made with my students had nothing to do with the lessons I was teaching. Their curriculum was so strict, and their success in school weighed so heavily on the results of standardized testing. My heart was not in it, and I felt like I was failing them as their teacher. By a month into the semester, I knew for certain that, although I enjoyed working with the students, this was not the career I wanted.
Halfway through that semester, I decided to drop my special education major and took the rest of the semester off to try and figure out another plan for my career. I moved home, and truly felt lost. In January, the next semester, I returned to ISU to finish the last few credits that were required for a degree in Human & Education Services and returned to Merge. I didn’t know how to explain to everyone where I had been for a semester and what happened. Looking back now, I know that part of why this transition was so difficult for me was because I was dealing with depression I didn’t understand yet. I was so disappointed in myself and consumed by negative thoughts that I convinced myself that there wasn’t anything else I could do now because I had failed at being a teacher - which was all I had ever wanted to be.
Over the course of my final semester, I didn’t have a lot to do. My classes were easy, and I was not motivated to get involved in anything. But I had Merge. A few of my friends from Merge encouraged me to run a half marathon with them, which forced me to stay active. I sang again in the worship band, which helped me connect to my faith in a way I couldn’t with words at the time. And, I got to go on one last mission trip to the Gulf Shores to volunteer, again, with Habitat for Humanity. It felt like a perfect, cliche “light bulb moment.” Maybe I wasn’t going to be a teacher, at least not in the traditional sense, but I could still do something to others. I applied to AmeriCorps the day I returned from spring break. I remember feeling like my heart was going to beat out of my chest when I applied to be a Construction Crew Lead like Danielle. Would I have the right experience, be a good enough candidate to be hired?
In May 2013, I accepted a position with Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake in Baltimore, Maryland, and moved across the country after graduation to serve as an AmeriCorps National service member. I served for two years, first as a Construction Crew Lead and then as the Volunteer Services Coordinator at Habitat Chesapeake.
After completing my years of service, I decided to stay in Baltimore and was hired as the Volunteer Coordinator at the Maryland SPCA, where I still work today. I got to use my teaching skills to show volunteers of all ages how to build houses, I got to serve an amazing community I now call home, and I learned that it’s ok when life doesn’t go according to plan.
I now teach a series of animal handling classes to new volunteers at the MD SPCA, and I am in the process of launching a new volunteer program at the shelter that will provide volunteer opportunities for individuals with disabilities. I would never have had these opportunities, wouldn’t be living the life I am now, without Merge and without those mission trips. I will forever be grateful for the friendships I made there, and for the guidance and support from our leaders Jennie, Ryan, Torey and Jess. Merge truly changed my life. “