Dakotah Harris ’21 not only discovered a new country while abroad in South Africa, he discovered his passion for service. Now working with AmeriCorps in Trinidad, Colorado, Harris says he owes his unexpected career to the liberal arts education he received at Butler.
Coming to Butler as a Biology major with minors in both Chemistry and Neuroscience, Harris had his sights set on a career as a doctor. While he didn’t have an exact path planned out in the beginning of his first year, he knew he could succeed in the sciences. But as time went on and different career paths were ruled out, Harris recalls becoming more and more confused with what he wanted his future to look like.
When it came time for Harris to take a required Global and Historical Studies (GHS) course sophomore year, his best friend and fellow Phi Delta Theta brother Robert Kreloff ’21 told Harris he had to find a way to take a class with Assistant Professor of Anthropology Dr. Julie Searcy. Trusting Kreloff’s advice, Harris registered for both a GHS and an anthropology class with Searcy. Harris says the anthropology class opened his eyes to other paths he could pursue outside of the sciences.
“I took that anthropology class with her, and she completely changed my world view on what it means to be a person who lives for people, as opposed to just a person who lives for themself,” Harris says. “She really encouraged me and made me want to be the best human I could be. I did well in my science classes, but I didn’t want to just do science anymore. I realized that I don’t want to be in research—I want to be with people.”
Even with that realization, Harris still didn’t have a clear path in mind. Feeling like he needed to get out of his comfort zone to gain some clarity, he sought out a study abroad program. Harris found a service-based program through the International Partnership for Service Learning (IPSL) in Cape Town, South Africa, that checked all his boxes.
Without ever leaving the United States before, Harris committed to travel 8,000 miles away to serve in Cape Town for the spring semester of his junior year.
When Harris arrived in Cape Town in January 2020, he started working 40-hour weeks with Streetscapes, a nonprofit housing and community involvement initiative for the homeless. By providing structure and a sense of stability, Streetscapes works to give the homeless resources to help keep them off the streets. Witnessing the impact the organization made through policy was an inspiring experience for Harris.
“I realized that real, lasting change happens in the boardroom, not in the field,” Harris says. “It happens in an office when you’re making policy. When you make a new law, when you change policy, that creates change that lasts for decades, not just for the time being.”
Fueled with passion, Harris was devastated when his time in Cape Town was cut short due to COVID-19 in March 2020. Although it didn’t feel quite right for him, Harris decided he wanted to pursue a master’s degree in Public Health after he graduated from Butler—to still be involved with science, but to also be able to deal with policy. Accepted into the program at Indiana University, that was the plan until July 2021.
Harris realized in the second week of July that pursuing the master’s degree was nowhere close to fulfilling the passion he felt back in Cape Town. Remembering a mention of the Peace Corps in a brief conversation he had with Searcy while still at Butler, Harris decided to take a chance and apply. When he learned that a position wouldn’t be available until the middle of 2022, he applied for two different AmeriCorps positions, one in Anchorage, Alaska, and one in Trinidad, Colorado.
Harris applied on Monday, interviewed on Tuesday, and got a call Wednesday saying he had two weeks to move to Trinidad. Harris packed up his entire life, explained the change of plans to his family, and drove the 17 hours to Trinidad to start his new chapter.
Harris now works through a nonprofit called Mt. Carmel to provide free holistic mind, body, and spirit programming for the entire Trinidad community. Specifically, Harris has worked with community members through a Diabetes Self Management Education course (DSME) and a chronic pain management class. Harris is also starting his own podcast about the Trinidad community, a CDC-accredited diabetes prevention course, and an art class for the homeless called “A Voice Through Art.”
When Harris arrived in Trinidad and saw that there was no programming for the homeless population, he began researching how to best serve the neglected parts of the community. Building the art class programming from the ground up, Harris has applied for grants and is working collaboratively with other community members to make the program come to life. The program aims to give homeless community members a creative outlet and a feeling of value.
Looking forward, Harris still plans to serve in the Peace Corps as a Health Extension Officer in Tanzania sometime in 2022. Beyond that, Harris wants to dive deeper into policy as a foreign service officer and eventually serve as a diplomat for the United States. Harris credits his future plans to the inspiration from Searcy and his experience abroad.
“The thing Butler does really well as a liberal arts school is how they not only encourage you to take classes outside of your major and what you do, but they almost force you to consider what else is out there,” Harris says. “I am only here now and have the future plans I have because I went abroad…I would have never realized what it was like to not settle if I wouldn’t have been open and if I wouldn’t have gone abroad.”
Gabi Morando is a sophomore at Butler University with majors in Journalism and Strategic Communication.