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Desareé McKinney

Among her many job titles; Desareé Williams McKinney lists ethnographer, researcher, writer, investigator, and coordinator. The fact of the matter is she is an adventurer at heart.

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McKinney has studied racism and discrimination in Argentina. She has managed an English language program to help refugees in Texas. She once bypassed a study abroad trip to Thailand and regretted it so much that she jumped at the next chance to go to Brazil.

She did all of this with a purpose in mind.

The inspiration for McKinney’s mindset started at Dominican. She was an Honors student, Summa Cum Laude, who came to Dominican to major in biology and environmental science, and minor in chemistry.

“Dominican was perfect. It was mystical to me,” McKinney says. “When I visited the campus for the first time, it appealed to my creativity and imagination.” 

I think people romanticize what it means to be an adventurer, to run around like Indiana Jones,” McKinney says. “But there are times when the unexpected happens and you have to deal with it. Sometimes it feels like a pressure cooker, but I love it. It keeps me on my feet; it keeps me thinking. That’s when I get my best ideas.

That creativity and imagination heightened when she was required in 2006 to take Service-Learning (SL) courses, beginning with the Honor’s Program Scholars in the World course, “ Self, Community, & Service: Ethical Theory and Practice.” As part of her course project, McKinney served with the Environmental Education Council of Marin to mentor high school students. However, it was the next SL course also taught by Director of Service-Learning and Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Julia van der Ryn -- “Philosophy of Social Initiative,” -- that had the biggest impact on McKinney. It opened her eyes to new ideas and new ways of interacting.

In fact, in the final paper for this class, McKinney reflected on past experiences and how she had now found her voice at Dominican after years of restraining her opinions. This discovery was the impetus for McKinney’s path of service and self-expression.

“I did see Desareé blossom -- something in her unfurled -- over the course of this particular semester,” van der Ryn, recalls. “In class, it was clear that she was finding her voice as she bravely spoke up about injustices she had experienced. In her writing, she insightfully analyzed and connected sophisticated ideas with her own life and her service experience with the Marin community. She seemed hungry for this type of thinking and action. In this class we were exploring some complex truths about ourselves as individuals and as a society. Understanding the significance of this type of learning experience is often not instantaneous, but I was aware that something had clicked for Des. Yet, I really had no idea how pivotal this whole experience was for her.”

McKinney learned to be less dependent on others, to be more self-reliant, and to trust what she could accomplish as an individual. At the same time, she recognized that she wanted to address social justice issues. In her words, this class “started a fire within me to help others and change the world”.

McKinney’s education at Dominican netted her many accomplishments. She earned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship. She was on a Dominican research team that created a tire scrubber to reduce the spread of Sudden Oak Death. She presented in the National Conference of Undergraduate Research (NCUR) in 2005, 2006, and in 2007 when Dominican hosted it.

Through the Service-Learning program, McKinney gained a philosophy that helped her identify and understand who she was and what she was doing. Now she has applied that line of thinking to her career choices.

“My experience at Dominican has shown me how winding and crooked our paths are to happiness and success,” McKinney says. “We think that it’s easy to plan life and all we have to do is follow a five-step outline. My experiences helped guide me away from that narrow-mindedness and showed me that there is so much more to life and to me as an individual.”

After Dominican, McKinney wanted to combine her love of science with her new-found passion for understanding and working with people. While pursuing her MA in Cultural Anthropology at Texas State University, McKinney traveled to Argentina for three months for her thesis research, another passion she acquired at Dominican.

“Research took me to places I had never been before and I studied things I never knew existed or ever considered,” McKinney says.

McKinney has submitted her historical and cultural narrative research of Argentina to a journal and is hoping it will be published someday soon. Once she returned from Argentina and graduated from Texas State, McKinney joined Literacy AmeriCorps to help teach English and job skills to adult refugees living in Austin, Texas. She evolved into an on-site coordinator of the program, absorbing different cultures and life stories.

However, McKinney believes she needed to cultivate her passions and utilize her skills and strengths in a more meaningful way. She is working on a manuscript for a book of short stories. She aspires to become an influential writer like Zora Neale Hurston, a folklorist, anthropologist and one of the pre-eminent writers of 20th century African-American literature.

McKinney points to Dominican and its Service-Learning program as the catalyst for her life’s adventures and ambitions.

“While I had seen her quiet power and voice emerge over the two semesters that she was my student, I had no idea that this had been such a turning point in her life,” van der Ryn says. “I am in awe of the woman she has become and am more than honored to have somehow been a part of awakening her passion for the world.” 


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