Teaching university religion courses. Coaching little-league baseball and Pop Warner football teams. Becoming fluent in a second language.
Sound like your typical college student? Not exactly, but then again, Wharton sophomore Scott Williams is anything but "typical." Over the last two years, these feats were mere routine for the Quakers defensive back who hails from Granite Bay, Calif. Scott, affectionately known as "Scotty," spent the 19th and 20th years of his life living and serving abroad as a Mormon missionary.
"Why?" you might ask. Well, you won't be the only one wondering. This same question frequented Scotty in his first semester at Penn, during the months leading up to his January 2002 departure. Why would someone fork over the heavy sum of cash a mission requires in order to disrupt their academic, athletic, familial and social lives, to spend two full years in bitter, frigid Canadian winters, with personal growth as the largest reward? Coaches at Stanford, Cal, and other Ivy League teams had a very hard time understanding it themselves. Many schools even withdrew their offers when they caught wind of William' missionary plans.
So why, with so little in his favor and so much at stake, did Scotty continue to pursue his plans for two-year service? He answers simply, "I just thought it would be a really cool experience, a chance to give back for all the things I feel I've received, almost unnecessarily. The church affords you that opportunity, why not take advantage of it." Serving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS, or more commonly, Mormon) as a missionary was something Williams had always wanted to do. He had "dreamed about it since he was little."
This was a dream that came true for Williams. After nine weeks at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, which consisted of intensive French language study and the "finishing" of Williams into a diplomatic, dignified official representative of the Church, he departed for "the Canada-Montreal Mission" in March 2002.
"I don't think that anything can really prepare you. Obviously, going to church growing up helps you understand the Church's teachings, but as far as the daily life of a missionary, I had no clue." Scotty was the first person in his family to be afforded the opportunity to serve a mission and thus had nothing to base his expectations on. His father, Doug, traveled the country speaking at youth seminars while playing football at Brigham Young University, getting his own version of a mission, but it just was not the same. "Given the opportunity, he'd love to go back and have the full missionary experience."
So, what is the "full missionary experience?" A typical day in the life of Elder Williams was either spent teaching or looking for pupils, "to share the message we bring, of Jesus Christ and his teachings, just like any missionary around the world." There were several ways to go about this: door to door inquiries, talking to people on the street, and setting up booths or kiosks were some of the options. But, the choice ultimately lay with Williams and his companion of the moment. Scotty favored the classroom environment; "We tried to get universities to allow us to teach a free religion course. Letting people sign up this way was good because the students were already coming with an interest."
Williams also completed about 10 hours of community service each week. Not only did he offer his personal help to those he met in door-to-door encounters, but he also worked in a food bank, taught free English courses, and coached children's baseball and football teams, the latter of which was one of his favorite experiences. "It was really fun, really interesting. In Canada, everyone plays hockey, but I don't know anything about it. The parents up there don't know football either, so I had an opportunity to work with the parents and children in the community, to teach them about football, and to get to know them on a personal level."
LDS missionaries are not allowed to call home except on two holidays - Mother's Day and Christmas. All other communication for the full two-year period is limited to email and postal correspondence. This, the occasional grumpiness of the villagers that resulted from the harsh arctic climate, and the constant 6+ feet of snow that covered the town, combined to make for periodic hard times. "But with that said, I thought it was a really extraordinary, rewarding experience. You have tough days, but great ones. You wonder about your time, monetary, and financial sacrifices, just to help other people, to serve them, and it's not always reciprocated. That can be pretty tough. But then, every once in a while, you have those little experiences. You see someone's life change for
the better, and it makes it all worth it."
So now with this two-year "disruption" under his belt, how did Scotty fare in terms of his "personal growth" reward? "I learned a lot about myself," he said. Williams has always been a driven, focused person, but these qualities were reinforced while he was abroad. "I came to fully realize what my personal strengths and weaknesses are, and I am now able to capitalize on these advantages and work to improve the areas in which I am lacking."
He also reports that he has come to truly appreciate his own culture. Williams points out how easy it is to take for granted something as seemingly simple as having access to transportation until it is your own multilayer-socked and booted feet carrying you across the frost-bitten town. But he especially thinks people often don't appreciate big things like sports. "People in sports often don't realize how much it means to them, how much fun it is playing sports, especially collegiate sports, until they can't do it anymore. That last game comes, and you realize, 'I am never going to strap on the pads again, go into the game again, at that level, at that intensity.' Taking two years off was a wake-up call. College sports are a blast. Enjoy it while you can, go all out, don't take it for granted, don't take any plays off, whether it be in practice, in the game, anything."
And this is just what #26, is doing. After a spring and summer to get back in shape (he returned in time for the Spring '04 semester), Scotty is pumped and primed to play. "Coach Bagnoli and the coaching staff were extremely supportive throughout the whole [mission] process. Coach even sent periodic emails. It makes me want to work that much harder and perform that much better for a coach that will do that for you."
Performed he has. In his first game back with the Red and Blue, Williams led the Quakers' defense in tackles, recording a career-best nine stops in the San Diego season-opener. This recent success, taken in the context of his letter-winning freshman year's nine game appearances, 11 tackles and one sack, seems to be signaling that Scotty is a man to watch ... a man with a mission.
Written by Maren McCauley, C'06
(Published in the Oct. 2, 2004 edition of Franklin Field Illustrated)