Called to service: Mari Dumbaugh

Woman standing in her back yard
Mari Dumbaugh deferred her college admission to join AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps in 2002. / Photo: Elizabeth Hruby McCabe

For some people, “service” has a special meaning. That’s because they stepped up to offer their time and talents to organizations such as the Peace Corps abroad and AmeriCorps in the U.S. Such service involved setting aside their own agendas and careers and turning their lives over for the good of others for a year or two.

Mari Dumbaugh had graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School and was accepted to college, but deferred starting when she joined the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) in 2002. “I had two particular history teachers at the high school, Pete DiNardo and John Donoghue, who were significant in shaping my world view, and opened my eyes to a lot of the historical inequities in the world,” she reported. “I wanted to see some of what they taught me. It was probably the best decision I ever made.”

Now based in Chicago, Dumbaugh grew up on Folkstone Drive, where her parents still live. She was assigned to an NCCC group that was based in Sacramento, California, although they worked in several western states. She joined with two friends, but they were sent to different assignments. “They tried to place you far away from where you were from and also away from anybody you knew.”

Mari with students in a sixth-grade classroom at an elementary school in Sacramento, California during a six-week project.

Dumbaugh’s team of eight young people was sent to five sites. They served at food banks in a poor neighborhood in San Francisco; worked in a Sacramento school district; made hiking trails in the Tonto National Forest in Arizona; built houses with Habitat for Humanity outside Salt Lake City; and put together a summer camp near Seattle.

Along the way she was exposed to people, circumstances, and situations that were totally new to her. “I learned a lot. I was forced to confront realities that we didn’t have in Mt. Lebanon,” said Dumbaugh. “These exist because of particular policies, histories, and realities. This has carried on into my work today as a global public health advocate, looking at health and wellbeing and livelihood from a social policy perspective.”

After her 10 months in AmeriCorps, Dumbaugh attended Mt. Holyoke College, traveled and worked in Australia, supervised another NCCC program on the South Side in Pittsburgh, and spent time studying and traveling in Africa and Europe. After earning a Ph.D., she started a consulting firm that provides research, training, and analysis on global health and became a professor in the public policy department of the University of Illinois.

“So many of my students are tempted to go right into graduate school. But I encourage them to consider AmeriCorps or another service organization. There’s something for everyone, whether you want to work with kids or old people, see other parts of the country, try new things. It will change your perspective.”

Dumbaugh believes that many students could benefit from a year of service before starting college. “I would not be the person I am today without that experience. I credit the teachers at the high school and the support of my parents who gave me motivation and put me on this path.”