Symbolizing the Spirit of Public Service

By Paglia, Ron | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Symbolizing the Spirit of Public Service


Paglia, Ron, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


One of the basic tenets of AmeriCorps, a program for the Corporation for National and Community Service, is offering an opportunity to make a big difference in an individual's life and in the lives of those around them.

Dedra Lynn Totin of Donora has a head start -- here and abroad -- on her goal of joining that organization.

"I am in the process of applying and interviewing with AmeriCorps, where I hope to start my formal career in public service," said Totin, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. "Being accepted would be my ultimate goal, and it would be a privilege to serve with them."

Totin's credentials in pursuing such a career include work-study programs in London and Tanzania as well as a seemingly neverending agenda of activities at UPJ.

A 2009 graduate of Ringgold High School, where she was equally busy with extracurricular activities that included community service, Totin was the recipient of a coveted Vira I. Heinz Study Abroad Scholarship in 2011.

That award took Totin, the daughter of George and Sheila Herron Totin of Donora, to London to serve an internship with Gareth Johnson, a member of the United Kingdom Parliament in the House of Commons.

"It was an incredible experience," Totin, 22, recalled. "I learned a lot about the policies and politics in the United Kingdom as well as the timeless traditions."

Her duties included doing research for Johnson within his constituency of Dartford, composing questions for the Prime Minister and assisting with tours in Parliament.

She also had the opportunity to travel within England to Bath, Oxford and Brighton, as well as to Paris, France, and Dublin, Ireland.

Overseas experiences continued during the summer of 2012 as Totin journeyed to Tanzania, where she lived in Arusha, a city of some 500,000 people.

"I took an intensive course focusing on human rights and capacity building in Eastern Africa for six weeks," she said. "We had the opportunity see first-hand the human rights violations by visiting courts and basically everyday living in both urban and rural areas of Tanzania. We had classes five days a week, and we studied previous approaches by the United Nations and East African Community to resolving these issues as well as creating resolutions ourselves."

Totin and others in her study group also volunteered at a local primary school in Upendo and at a nearby orphanage.

"The interaction with the children and staff at both sites was something I will never forget," she said.

The group also enjoyed traveling to such nearby cities as Moshi and Usa River and the island of Zanzibar.

Unlike the session in London, which was funded by the Heinz Scholarship, the trip to Tanzania was "mostly self-funded by loans and financial aid," Totin said.

"I did receive small donations and scholarships, but I thought the experience was certainly worth making the personal investments," she said.

Totin said the overseas programs more than complement her traditional studies at UPJ. They provided her with practical approaches to myriad human rights issues as she helped develop international and peace resolutions. She also gained a better understanding of development in communities and ways in which grassroots projects build capacity and empower communities.

"I've always wanted to travel," she said. "There was no doubt that I would be doing that when I entered college. The internship in London and the experiences in Tanzania complement my studies at UPJ because I am a political science major, and I have always wanted to pursue a career dealing with human rights, either through policy or the nonprofit sector. Ultimately, I would like to work by doing some sort of public service."

Totin, a high honors graduate of Ringgold High School, will be graduated from UPJ in early December as she completes an accelerated 3 1/2 years of studies. …

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