The Marshall Plan

A student finds himself and his passion through helping others


Seeing the stuffed animals and teddy bears hanging on a fence where Plaza Towers Elementary School had been – where seven children died when a tornado struck Moore, Okla. – got to Western Carolina University senior Aaron Marshall. So when he pulled out his phone to review the location of the disaster recovery teams he was working with in May 2013 and heard the “ping” of an email message from the director of WCU’s athletic training program, he could no longer push his doubts aside. His dream of working as an athletic trainer brought him to WCU, but his increasing involvement with community service and disaster relief were pulling him in another direction. He wrote back to the director that he needed to step away from the program. He needed to be in Oklahoma to help. Then, he needed answers.

“Why?” Marshall asked God. “And, Dude, what am I going to go and do?”

Ready to serve

As a high school firefighter and an emergency medical technician, Marshall enjoyed assisting the medical crew supporting high school athletics teams in his Gastonia hometown. Becoming an athletic trainer seemed to marry his interest in sports, his love of being outside and his passion for helping others, and the strength of WCU’s program brought him to Cullowhee three-and-half years ago. A flier on an elevator about Center for Service Learning activities for which students could sign up caught his attention during his first weekend on campus. The flier mentioned chopping firewood to help people in need, and he had never chopped firewood before. Plus, he had met Jennifer Cooper from the center while rock climbing during a WCU First Ascents orientation program, so he felt like he knew someone who would be involved. Marshall and his roommate, who also signed up, had so much fun they volunteered afterward to deliver the firewood, a journey that took them deep into hollers and on backroads. The following weekend, Marshall signed up to help build a ramp at a trailer and again came away with the sense that there were tremendous things he could do within miles of campus.

Pachi in Guatemala

Aaron Marshall helped care for a young girl nicknamed Pachi in Guatemala who had nutritional and digestive needs. Marshall, who wears a bracelet she gave him, continues to receive photos and updates about her. (Photo by WCU student John Witherspoon)

He then broadened his scope, participating in a service-focused fall break trip to Lexington, Ky., during the fall semester of his freshman year. There, WCU students helped construct a Habitat for Humanity home, sorted through thrift store items for the Lexington Rescue Mission and toiled alongside the Community Action Council, the largest coalition working to fight poverty in Central Kentucky. That spring, he became more involved, helping plan a service-focused alternative break trip to Washington, D.C., to incorporate more teambuilding and shared experiences among the students who participated.

He went on to join a service trip with recreational therapy and nutrition students to Guatemala. Marshall was enthusiastic, “up for anything” and industrious, said Jennifer Hinton, a trip leader and director of the recreational therapy program. The two spent hours talking about his aspirations, his passion for working in health care and with people, and Hinton welcomed him again when he asked to accompany the Wesley Foundation group with Cullowhee United Methodist Church on a mission trip to Guatemala even though he is Jewish.

“It didn’t hit me until Guatemala,” said Marshall. “I am forming lifelong bonds. Some of my greatest friends are people I’ve gone on service-related opportunities with.”

A team effort

The more Marshall became involved, the more he wanted others to join him in service. “There is so much good that could be done by 10,000 really engaged students,” said Marshall.

When he returned from a trip to assist the New York Cares organization in helping people whose homes were damaged by Hurricane Sandy, Marshall contacted Lane Perry, director of the Center for Service Learning. Marshall wanted to help in New York again, and asked if they could develop a course around it. The hurricane had caused major damage to businesses, more than 37,000 primary residences and about 9,300 rental units, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Marshall helped plan a two-and-a-half-week May mini-mester course, “Leadership in Civil Society,” structured around the social change model of leadership that would include a service trip to New York. He also expanded his role with helping plan alternative break trips to coordinating service activities, discussions and trip speakers around themes such as hunger and homelessness.

He organized a nonprofit organization, Student Humanitarian Activist, which is committed to helping connect college students with opportunities to embrace volunteerism, humanitarian actions and activism. And he shared ideas in venues such as WCU’s inaugural Discovery Forum, in which he was named a top presenter for his proposal titled “Mitigating Bad Aid: The Use of Technological Interventions and Mid-Level Medical Care Professionals to Advance Care in the Third World.”

Marshall and Gomez

While assisting Team Rubicon with disaster recovery after a tornado struck Moore, Okla., Aaron Marshall comforted Guiliana Alize Gomez after she was told that her house would have to be demolished. (Photo by Jonathen E. Davis and courtesy Team Rubicon)

Meanwhile, he connected with Team Rubicon, an organization that organizes and deploys volunteers who are primarily military veterans to assist with disaster relief. Dee Clancy, a Navy veteran working with Team Rubicon, called him in the middle of the night and asked him if he wanted to meet her the next morning to drive to Adairsville, Ga., where a tornado had caused damage.

“We’d never met, never spoken and had only exchanged one brief message on a social network at that point,” said Clancy. “Without even pausing to ask the million questions I was expecting, he said, ‘Yes, what time do you want me there? I can be there in less than an hour.’”

The next day, they traveled to the site and Marshall, a 20-year-old college student, worked alongside hardened veterans, said Clancy.

“He came to me at 5 a.m., a few days into our deployment, and told me he wasn’t sure if he was in the right place or not because he didn’t know how to relate to some of those men,” said Clancy. She shared with him a reflection that an Iraq veteran had written detailing his struggles integrating back into a society and how Team Rubicon helped him feel like he was worth something again. Marshall read and re-read the piece, she said.

“Aaron made a decision to stay with our group because he finally understood why what we were doing was so much more than disaster response,” said Clancy.

Several deployments with Team Rubicon later, Marshall was sent to Moore, Okla. He tried to coax Team Rubicon volunteers to specific disaster recovery tasks, saying, “Come on, please,” and “Can we do this?” before someone pulled him aside and suggested he “grow a backbone,” said Marshall.

“They said ‘I don’t understand why you are asking me. Tell me to do something, and I’ll execute that job superbly. Just physically instruct me on what to do,’” said Marshall.

So Marshall embraced a version of the “knife hand,” a crisp, flat-palmed gesture used by drill instructors, to direct teams to different tasks. He traded his casual, civilian slip-on style shoes for durable, work boots. He made friends, the kind he could call at any time and ask for help.

At a later deployment, while snuggled in a subzero sleeping bag on a cot in a community center that did not have power, Clancy could hear Marshall laughing across the room as he played a recently invented game called
“ChemLight curling.”

“He has this laugh that literally forces you to laugh too, even if you’re exhausted, freezing, in the dark, in the middle of a disaster zone and you haven’t slept in 36 hours,” said Clancy. “He is a silver-linings person, able to find joy in even the most drastic situations, and he shares that joy with everyone around him. That’s one of his gifts, and our deployments are better for it.”

Critical reflection

Marshall’s three-and-a-half weeks assisting after the tornado in Oklahoma took a toll. The disaster scene felt post-apocalyptic – a flat desert with pieces of wood or building remnants here and there. “I cried, but at the exact same time, I felt really compelled to do something,” said Marshall.

Afterward, though, uncertain of his future and struggling with purpose, he said he went “straight vagabond,” visiting friends and family, talking with Clancy and trading emails with Perry.

Marshall joined a friend on an Appalachia Service Project initiative to assist with home repairs in West Virginia. But when he pulled out his knife hand and gave directions with the military-style efficiency he had grown accustomed to with Team Rubicon, he was not well received.

“My very dear friend said, ‘Aaron, you can’t talk to these people like this. You have to tone it down,’” said Marshall.

The experience left him reflecting on leadership styles and service, and the parallels he saw in the poverty-stricken areas they drove through in West Virginia and areas affected by disaster where he had worked.

“These homes looked like little shanties with no front door, no heating and plumbing, no windows. Yet, in some, there are kids running through having fun and people who are appreciative,” said Marshall. “Southern Appalachia just got a piece of my heart.”

Commitment to action

Marshall returned to WCU in time to attend a retreat and serve as a mentor for the new Ripple Effect learning community, a group of first-year students seeking to not only observe the “ripples” that small acts and service perpetuate for social change, but also to jump in and make ripples themselves.

Meeting students who, like him, felt a drive to make a difference helped Marshall feel less alienated. He embraced the idea that doing good was transferrable, that there was much that could be learned and taught through service. He decided to change his major to sociology and international studies while also pursuing a minor in emergency and disaster management.

“I want to continue to focus on the way in which disasters affect people,” said Marshall. “Disasters are staying around. They are going to happen.”

He was chosen to participate in the selective Clinton Global Initiative University this spring in which he joined about 1,200 student leaders from around the world. For the “Commitment to Action” each CGI U participant was required to submit, Marshall developed a proposal to use new technology to bring together skilled military veterans to help address housing and poverty needs in Southern Appalachia.

Marshall anticipates continuing his education after graduation, perhaps in medicine or public health. He has a desire to serve in the military in Israel. He wants to get involved in more international service work and examine what else his nonprofit organization, Student Humanitarian Activist, can do.

In a letter nominating Marshall for a national award, WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher said few students share the same need to help others as strongly as Marshall and that Marshall “recognizes that the world is a place where opportunities are easier to take advantage of than to ignore, and he seizes them as often as they come.”

Perry said he is honored to work with Marshall. “The Center for Service Learning gave him the space and the freedom to truly figure out who he is as a person – one who sees himself as part of a solution and who operationalizes that vision and sees that in others too,” said Perry. “Servant leaders are servants first. What starts as chopping wood or picking up trash ends with social change and with the cultivation of people like Aaron, who are going to go out and change the world and the communities they live in.”


• Each year, the Center for Service Learning’s 10 daylong service events and two alternative break trips attract nearly 1,000 student participants.

• WCU has been named to the national President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for six consecutive years.

• More than 200 course sections meet the service-learning course designation criteria. These course sections incorporate community-based activities that connect academic content through critical reflection.

• WCU faculty members have produced 18 scholarly publications from their community engagement work in the past two years.