Honors are still coming for graduate

Alumna of St. Mary's given award for teaching students in Mongolia and other public service

September 15, 2006|By SUSAN GVOZDAS | SUSAN GVOZDAS,Special to the Sun

During her 15 months teaching students in rural Mongolia, Katie Church lived in a tent. She had no running water or electricity. She cooked her meals in a makeshift fireplace. She fought winter temperatures that dropped to 40 degrees below zero.

Six years later, the St. Mary's High School graduate has returned to Mongolia in hopes of helping substance abusers.

Church, who has dedicated her life to public service since graduating from St. Mary's College in 1999, was recently honored by the Southern Maryland school with its first Outstanding Young Alumni award.

"When I found out, I was very surprised," Church said during a phone interview from Mongolia. "I think it's a really nice way to recognize alumni and also motivate people to do more."

Church comes from a military family that moved 12 times in 22 years. Her father, John, was in the U.S. Air Force. Her parents adopted her from Korea while they were living in Japan. They lived in Germany and traveled extensively through Eastern Europe. Later the family settled in Davidsonville, and she graduated from St. Mary's High in Annapolis in 1995.

"My dad grew up living in Asia and saw a lot of poverty and talked to us about it," Church said. Her mother, Barbara Church, is principal at Seven Oaks Elementary School.

In college, she joined the Amnesty International chapter and interned at the St. Mary's County Health Department, where she worked with infants, toddlers and in community outreach.

She graduated in 1999 with a biology degree and headed to Mongolia. There, recalled fellow Peace Corps volunteer Jason Reed, all the volunteers spent several months together learning the guttural Mongolian language before branching out on their solo assignments.

During training, volunteers normally traveled in groups to markets to get food, Reed said. Church, however, often ventured out on her own.

"I was most impressed about how capable Katie was in Mongolia," Reed said.

When she returned to Maryland in late 2000, Church worked for the Youth Crime Watch of America in Washington, promoting the program in schools and in police departments nationwide. She also did an internship at Amnesty International in Washington.

Church spent a year as a substitute teacher in Anne Arundel County schools before starting an accelerated nursing program at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in 2002. By July 2003, Church had earned a second bachelor's degree in nursing.

"She's very determined and when she decided to become a nurse, she went head-on into it," her mother said.

While at Hopkins, Church worked with adults in an inpatient detoxification program. She earned a master's degree in public health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health in December.

Church began looking for overseas assignments again and gravitated back to Mongolia because she knew the language and the culture. Church hopes to get a job where she can help substance abusers.

Emma Petrie Barcelona, a college friend of Church's, nominated her. The two bonded at St. Mary's College through a multicultural group that promoted diversity on campus. Barcelona heard about the award program in March and knew her longtime friend exemplified the award for public service.

"I'm just pleased to be her friend and proud of her work," said Barcelona, who graduated with Church in 1999.

Church, 29, missed the award ceremony in June because she was in Colorado working as a nurse at a Girl Scout camp and teaching nursing classes at a local college. She stayed in Maryland for about three weeks in August before returning to Mongolia, where she is teaching science to private school students.

This time around, she is living in an apartment in the country's capital of Ulaanbaatar. She has running water and electricity - except for sporadic blackouts.

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