Elizabeth Gray, B.A.’08
A Philosophical Outlook
By Carol Olechowski
Elizabeth Gray has an interesting take on life: “Making plans is futile, and the best way to find opportunities is to be open to them when they present themselves.”
That philosophy has landed Gray jobs at an art studio and a farmers market and motivated her to begin her own after-school enrichment programs for children. Now, it has inspired her to take on a new project: helping a small indigenous community in Ecuador to establish its own school.
Born in The Bronx and raised in Ithaca, N.Y., Gray arrived at UAlbany “with no clear career plans.” However, the University’s “wide-ranging and varied course offerings” afforded her “incredible opportunities” to explore new interests. The Honors College student majored in philosophy, a “compelling and challenging” discipline that “offers a rigorous intellectual, moral and metaphysical foundation from which all things follow. My training in philosophy has prepared me, not just academically but as a whole person, to engage meaningfully with any path that I end up following.”
Inspired by the leadership of then-President Kermit Hall, who passed away in 2006, Gray was determined to “strive for excellence and reach higher in the belief that we can be the best in all that we do. Every aspect of my education was all that I could have hoped for.” She cites the mentorship of Professor of Philosophy Jon Mandle, her adviser, and Distinguished Teaching Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science John Delano, as well as a study-abroad experience in Chile, as highlights of her years at UAlbany.
Gray took odd jobs after graduation, earning enough money to buy a plane ticket to Ecuador. She traveled in Quito and the Galapagos Islands, teaching English at a hostel in exchange for free housing. Gray later connected with the volunteer program Nueva Era and taught on San Cristobal, Galapagos, for six weeks. “It was paradise,” recalls Gray, who explored the island and lived with local families during her stay.
Soon, a new opportunity presented itself, and Gray found herself teaching the children of the Wishi Community, part of “an indigenous group called Shuar. The families – about 10 adults and 20 children – live in simple huts made of wood or bamboo and survive as hunter-gatherers.”
In the community’s primitive schoolhouse, “the kids sat on logs under a scrap of aluminum roofing,” remembers Gray. “There were no supplies, so we used what was available: We wrote with charcoal on the piece of wood that served as our chalkboard, painted numbers on rocks with paint made from achiote seed, and made 10 workbooks from a single notebook. The kids shared three pens while practicing writing for hours. Despite the limitations of our classroom, the children were so excited to be learning.”
Gray left the community a few weeks later, determined to return with the money, materials and manpower needed to build a school. Back in the Capital Region, she began the Wishi Project to raise the $20,000 needed for construction and supplies. By early December 2010, donors had contributed more than $13,000 toward that goal. Alumni Morgan Edwards, B.S.’07, and Danny Buckley, B.A.’07; juniors Sammy Frumkin and Joel Tirado; and other friends Gray made at UAlbany “have been truly invaluable” in lending “support and guidance” to the project.
Gray anticipates that the school’s impact will prove “immeasurable” as families who left to enroll their children in school elsewhere return to their community. A teacher fluent in both Shuar and Spanish has already been engaged; Gray will work with her to develop a curriculum, then “leave the running of the school” to the Wishi. “My greatest hope is to make the school so self-sustaining that I make myself obsolete.”
Adds Gray: “I don’t know what I will do when I finish this project, but I hope that it will have given me the tools I need to move forward toward a rewarding and successful path – or at least to my next step. I have learned that committing myself passionately to the opportunities that present themselves will lead me to the next big thing.”