International volunteer missions spur MBA student’s passion for teaching, research

by | Jul 23, 2018

MBA student Damon Walker returned to West Africa in May after an inspiring volunteer trip in 2017.
Damon Walker, graduate information systems student

MBA student and information systems graduate Damon Walker has been on two international volunteer trips with Winrock International. The experiences in Guinea and Senegal awakened his passion for teaching and research. (Photo by August Jennewein)

As Damon Walker prepared to teach his first class, he was nearly overcome with fear.

He wasn’t a trained educator, so a series of doubts ran through his mind: Would his work make an impact? Would he be able to connect with the trainees? Was he armed with the right instructional strategies?

His inability to speak to the class without an interpreter only made the anxiety worse.

But when the morning came and he introduced himself, everything changed.

“Once the class started and I said, ‘Hello and bonjour,’ the anxiety left,” said Walker, an MBA student at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “It was game time. It was time to go. I was like, ‘I came to help, so it’s time to help.’”

Placed in Guinea on a volunteer mission, Walker pushed forward with his lesson following the stressful greeting, knowing that his work would enhance the West African community in which he found himself.

Walker, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems from UMSL in 2016, made the summer 2017 trip as a first-time volunteer for The John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer Program. Sponsored by Winrock International, Walker arrived in Guinea to teach an introduction to computers course to employees of the country’s Department of Agriculture.

The skill level of the trainees varied – some had limited skill sets and others had no experience at all. In response, he began to form an individualized teaching method, meeting the trainees wherever their knowledge might be with internet usage and Microsoft programs Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

“I had to lean on my leadership and research skills to make sure I was communicating effectively,” said Walker, who earned a bronze President’s Volunteer Service Award for his work. “I would consider this experience to be diplomatic because there is a sense of pride knowing that I was able to assist the improvement of the local community there as well as the world. I’m eager about doing more volunteering endeavors.”

He’s also eager to continue teaching.

When he returned stateside, he became a tutor for other UMSL students and was recruited to teach a programming and coding course for elementary and middle school students in the Jennings School District. His time in Guinea also inspired his return to the Winrock volunteer program in May.

His second three-week trip sent him to Senegal, a country bordering Guinea, to work with two vocational schools on developing a website and alumni database.

The two schools lacked both of these infrastructures prior to Walker’s arrival, so he hopes his time there will help the programs garner wider visibility and boost enrollment.

While the trainees were gaining new technical skills, Walker said he was learning alongside them about himself and the world around him.

When he would return to his hotel for the evening, Walker’s day was just beginning. He spent significant time in his room reflecting on how to enhance his instruction as well as practicing French and Wolof, a native language for many in Senegal.

“I’m kind of an eager learner, so in the evenings I would go back to my room and I would try to learn a few words,” Walker said. “I was trying to learn French and Wolof at the same time. I would come back to class and I would try some of the words, and they would encourage me to try more and give me the right way to pronounce certain words.”

Walker’s always strived to be a continual learner.

He’d already developed a career in telecommunications when he decided to go back to school. As a data analyst at CenturyLink, he became interested in some of the technical elements of the company, so he began taking classes part time at St. Louis Community College–Florissant Valley.

When he was finished with his associate degree, Walker transferred to UMSL’s College of Business Administration, where he became particularly intrigued by his information systems coursework.

He enrolled full time upon his transition to UMSL while also maintaining his normal work schedule. He admits the experience was “an uphill battle” but that it also gave him a better business perspective of his own company and others in the industry.

“It’s definitely a process,” Walker said while laughing. “It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of late nights, a lot of long weekends. It takes dedication. You just have to be dedicated to the process.”

He became so ingrained in the process that he decided to transition immediately into UMSL’s graduate program.

“I have a strong thirst for knowledge, and I didn’t feel complete after my bachelor’s,” Walker said. “I felt like there was more to learn.”

Now halfway through the MBA program, Walker’s determined that he’s still not done with his educational pursuits. He’s currently researching PhD programs across the globe with the hopes of eventually becoming a college professor.

“After the farmer-to-farmer experience, I would jump at almost any opportunity to help where I can,” Walker said. “That experience, along with the encouragement of the professors at UMSL, is really what pushed me toward researching a PhD program and getting into teaching and research.”

Sara Bell

Sara Bell