(Published in 2002)
Building an academic reputation while pursuing her own intellectual and spiritual needs has sometimes proven to be a struggle for Esther Ellsworth, provoking a dynamic tension between ideals and realities, between belief and doubt. In her journey, she represents the best traditions of scholarship and community leadership. Whether helping out at the Phoenix soup kitchen Andre House, or tutoring elementary school children in Oaxaca, Mexico, Esther has been unflagging in her focus on public service and in striving toward her goal of giving a voice to the invisible and powerless.
Esther (Flinn Scholars Class of 1998) is the third Flinn Scholar of the Ellsworth family, preceded by her brother Matt (’93) and sister Clare (’96). Far from daunted by the accomplishments of her siblings, she has garnered numerous awards and accolades, including the Truman and Udall Scholarships. Esther will be concurrently enrolled in ASU’s M.S. Biology program this fall. Upon completion of the M.S. program, she plans to study bioethics and science policy.
We managed to catch up with Esther shortly before she left for Gambia, where she participated in the International Health and Environmental Internship and Research Program for six weeks this summer.
As educators and community service volunteers themselves, how have your parents influenced your own commitment to education and the community?
Community involvement was simply part of growing up “Ellsworth” — social-justice-oriented work was a family activity. We joined peace vigils, participated in United Farm Workers boycotts, served meals to the homeless, and wrote elected officials about social welfare.
My parents’ work as educators provided a model of serving the community through one’s employment, not simply as an after-school or weekend activity. My own interest in education hasn’t come directly from my parents, but my interest in public service is definitely rooted in their example.
What advice would you give students preparing to embark upon their collegiate education, and seeking to remain grounded in their philosophical beliefs?
College has been a mixture of school stress and social time and personal growth – and I wish I could say I’ve kept my emotional/spiritual balance throughout. But I haven’t – some semesters have been really lonely and full of self-doubt. I gradually learned to take a few hours or days for personal retreat.
So for advice? Please, please spend time doing what you love. Go camping. Visit your family. Play a musical instrument. Join a comedy club. All of us face a challenge to discover and develop our talents and use them in the service of others – focus on that process, and you’ll be plenty happy and “successful.”
Recognition can be the enemy of public service, but can also provide a greater voice and audience with which to speak to social concerns. What balance have you been able to strike between these seemingly diametric forces?
It comes back to knowing what my passions are and being faithful to those commitments. An example: the Truman award includes an opportunity to work with the federal government in Washington, D.C. As exciting as federal service could be, I would be removed from the small-town communities I care about, from the mountains and canyons I love, and, in a direct sense, from teaching. So for me, working in Washington could only be a temporary commitment. Whether people work at the local or national (or international) level, you need to be sure you are learning and serving in a way that seems fulfilling.
Who has been your greatest influence at ASU?
Jane Maienschein – my Flinn mentor. She is a model for creative university service – not only is she an excellent teacher and researcher (having earned Professor of the Year and Regents Professor recognition), she has been a science adviser to Congress and has instructed federal judges about reproductive biology and stem cell technology. She also serves at the local level on education projects and bioethics panels.
Which of your many experiences abroad would you say has had the greatest influence upon you as a person?
Professionally, it would be Costa Rica – where I solidified my interest in community-based decision-making.
But personally, it would be Oaxaca – where I worked between my junior and senior years of high school. That summer offered an important opportunity for self-definition, and I learned to invest myself fully in the community where I lived and worked.