Dr. Kenneth Kerr was only 10 years old when his grandfather asked him a simple question that would come to shape everything he knew about his life: would he ever go back to the old country of his ancestors — Ireland? In 2011 he finally did, as a recipient of Phi Theta Kappa’s Mosal Award.
Mosal Award recipient Dr. Kenneth Kerr at the ruins of his great-grandfather’s birth home in Northern Ireland.
The Mosal and Marshall Awards provide financial support to advisors for the completion of projects that lead to personal professional and leadership growth. Each award carries a $5,000 stipend, and the number presented each year varies depending on the quality of the applications and the availability of funds.
The Mosal Award was established in 1984 and is named in honor of Dr. Margaret Mosal, the Society’s first executive director. The Marshall Award was established in 2012 and is named for Dr. Jo Marshall, President of Somerset Community College in Kentucky who served the Society as an advisor for 30 years and as the Alabama Regional Coordinator for 28 years.
Mosal Award recipient Dan Bailey, right, with Eric Chong, Phi Theta Kappa advisor at Guam Community College, and his daughter Erica.
Kerr — advisor to the Alpha Delta Sigma Chapter at Frederick Community College in Maryland — was inspired to learn more about his ancestry following a Faculty Scholar Conference in 2009. During an icebreaker session, each Faculty Scholar was to place a dot on a map of the world on the place they considered “home” and explain why. Kerr, who had been reading about DNA ancestry, placed his dot on the eastern coast of Africa, near modern-day Tanzania, explaining that – as the place where modern humans originated – this was home to everyone.
“That moment got me thinking about how I got from there to here,” Kerr said. “I wanted to trace my genetic ancestry back following the genetic mutations my male ancestors deposited on my Y chromosomes over the millennia. I wanted to do this physically and stand in the places where my DNA tells me I had an ancestor.”
The Mosal Award was a way he could help fund such a journey. Kerr submitted a proposal that included traveling to Northern Ireland for one month to interview locals, research the history of Ireland, and continue his genealogical research and “uncover the story of my family.”
“Applying for the Mosal Award made me look deeper into what it was I wanted to do and how it would benefit me personally and professionally,” he said. “Receiving the award made it possible to begin the first stage of a multi-year quest to visit the places my ancestors lived, eventually making my way to Tanzania in the years to come.”
Former Rocky Mountain-Cascade Regional Coordinator Dr. Velda Arnaud of Lane Community College in Oregon has been a regular fixture at Phi Theta Kappa’s Annual Convention as an Educational Forum presenter. Her leadership presentations always see a high attendance – so high, in fact, that they’re often standing room only.
For years she dreamed of taking her presentation on the road to Phi Theta Kappa chapters and regions across the country. Her dreams were realized in 2013 when she received the first Marshall Award. She conducted her first “Leadership Tour” through Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. She documented her journey here: http://leadershiptour.wordpress.com/.
“I wish that I could say that it fulfilled that dream and I have moved on to other things,” Arnaud said. “However, it has left me with a desire to conduct more leadership tours.
“Years ago I discovered that the things I have learned about leadership and social skills are valuable to our students. Therefore, I will take any opportunity to share my knowledge with others. I guess you could say that this is my passion.”
Receiving the Mosal Award in 2009 allowed Dan Bailey, advisor of the Alpha Omega Gamma Chapter at Ashland Community and Technical College in Kentucky, to retrace his father’s footsteps — literally. His father, a Marine, fought in the South Pacific during World War II in the battles for Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa and participated in the occupation of Nagasaki following the dropping of the atomic bomb.
“While preparing to go to church on Easter morning in 1995, my dad stood over a wash basin with shaving lather on his face and said to me, ‘Fifty years ago this morning, we hit the beaches of Okinawa,’ ” he said. “I call that a defining moment in my life.”
The proposal began with a conversation Bailey had with Eric Chong, a chapter advisor at Guam Community College, during an Annual Convention. Bailey told Chong that his father had been in Guam after it had been liberated from the Japanese in 1944.
“Instantly, he gave me one of the sharpest salutes I have ever received and said, ‘The people of Guam and I salute your father and the brave men who fought for our freedom,’ ” Bailey said. “This sent chills up my spine.”
Bailey, himself a soldier in the U.S. Army Reserve, longed to visit the sites where his father fought for freedom. The Mosal Award gave him that opportunity, even allowing him to spend Liberation Day in Guam – a holiday that would not have been possible without the service of men like his father. During the 18-day period, he traveled more than 20,000 miles.
He now shares his research and travels with high school, college, military, civic and community groups.
“Having the opportunity to complete the trip and to share my pictures and stories with my father before he passed away on October 27, 2013, was an unbelievable experience,” Bailey said.
Kerr’s own defining moment – that one, simple question from his grandfather – set him off on a journey he never could have imagined. Like Bailey’s own adventure, it was a true attempt to see and better understand who and where he really came from.
“Almost all of us in the United States are orphans to our ancestry,” he said. “It is difficult to find a structure or a family that has existed in any given place more than 300 years. Although I feel very much a part of my modern family and my community, deep inside I feel like an orphan longing to know who his father and mother are.”
Kerr and his wife stood at the altar of Garvaghy Church in Northern Ireland on the very spot where his great-great-grandparents were married. He sat on the cornerstone of the ruins of the farmhouse where his great-grandfather was born, and he looked out over the farm fields – virtually unchanged since the 17th century – on which his great-grandfather had worked.
“I had a hint of a feeling that this orphan had come home,” he said.