“Ubuntu”: Short for “Umuntu ngumuntu ngamantu”—a South African proverb meaning, “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.”
“It essentially means everyone on Earth is human,” describes Jon Ferris, a sophomore psychology major at Marist. “Everyone on Earth has felt scared before, and has felt sad and has felt joy, and where those feelings come from and how they arise are different for each person. But, I believe, that when I feel joy, it’s the same as when you feel joy. It’s why we’re all in this together—whatever that this is.”
But at 18 years old, Jon wasn’t entirely sure what this was. Facing post high school emotional struggles, and very much disenchanted with school, all that he was certain of was the fact that higher education was not yet his calling. “I hated school. And I knew I hated school,” he describes. Instead of pursuing the traditional high-school-to-college transition, Jon embarked on a more unorthodox lifestyle. For him, this lifestyle centered around City Year—an international education-based nonprofit that provides Americorps volunteers age 17-24 to low-income schools threatened by large drop-out rates.
While many of his peers packed up their mini vans and headed for a life of dining halls and dorm rooms, Jon found himself tucked away in a small apartment in Manchester, N.H., living off food stamps and a stipend of 260 dollars per week. As syllabus week of 2013 commenced at Marist, Jon was knee deep in fourth grade arithmetic problems with the elementary class for which he served as a full time volunteer and tutor.
Jon served two years in the Americorps program. He first worked as a volunteer tutor for a fourth grade class. Later on he was promoted to team leader—a responsibility that included providing support to the other members of the program. “For the first time in my life, I actually saw a purpose,” Jon said. “Like me in high school, there were students who also didn’t want to be there in school, but I had to show them why they needed to be.”
When his second year at City Year came to a close, Jon knew his time to continue his education had come. When he walked onto the Marist campus for the first time it was not for a tour. It was on Accepted Students Day 2015 after he had already committed. “Marist was the first to accept me, so I said they must really want me, so I’ll just go there.”
“Jon Ferris” has become a household name for Marist. He is a member of the honors program, co-president of the Emerging Leaders Program and National Society of Leadership and Success, an orientation leader, a First Year Programs volunteer and is involved in the Student Government Association. And somehow, Jon still finds time to pursue his musical theater interest through Marist Singers and Marist College Club of Theatre Arts (MCCTA).
“I just really like working with people,” Jon says. “I like meeting people and bringing out the best in people and I am very committed to everything I do.” But while college is now something which Jon fully embraces, he focuses his efforts on the bigger picture. A picture inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., in the idea that everybody can be great because everybody can serve.
“You don’t need a degree to serve. All you need is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love, and you can make a difference,” Jon says. In this light, college graduation is something that Jon sees as arbitrary. Maybe he will be a psychiatric therapist, or a leadership workshop coordinator. But he has yet to lay out a concrete plan for his life, because he is already living his life—in the work he does for others, in knowing who he is and in working to be a better person each day.
Of course, Jon gets overwhelmed. He gets stressed and has breakdowns, and loses sleep while striving for success sometimes—but perhaps for the very same reason that motivates him to get up in the morning. “I am human. My humanity is tied to yours—I am because you are,” he reflects. To empower others, to inspire and transform and create unity and change—this is what Jon sees as his “concrete plan.” To help others figure out the this, because “Whatever you think this is, we’re all in it together.”