For Esther Ferreira, graduation meant leaving Memphis and leaving the United States. She walked across the stage in May 2019 and promptly commenced to Tonga to live among a community of 600 people, few of whom spoke English.
She had spent her years at CBU looking for ways to help people, ways to understand them and, although she knew that grad school made sense for most people with a BA in psychology, it wasn’t the path for her.
Instead, she joined the Peace Corps, putting her knowledge and her heart to work by living and working in a hamlet near the well-travelled country of Fiji. “Anyone can be a tourist,” she says, “but I really enjoyed my time [in Tonga], immersing myself in the culture, learning the language, finding out how to be part of the community there.” For seven months, Esther got to know the Tongans, serving as a pioneer teacher, teaching English to 3rd through 6th graders, learning to love the people.
And then COVID-19 changed the world. Forced to come back to the United States in March 2020 with twenty months left in her Peace Corps commitment, Esther went home to California to hunker down during the pandemic’s lockdown. But her servant heart wouldn’t let her rest. Needing a way to help others, she first took a job with Social Security as a claims specialist and then in August 2021 joined the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as an investigator.
As a first-generation, Hispanic college graduate who knows what discrimination and struggle look like, Esther says, “I feel really excited about the work I’ll be doing. [The EEOC] is the only civil rights agency in the U.S., and that’s something that’s very important to me. This will give me an opportunity to enforce employment laws and stand up for people and create change in the working environment. It’s really exciting to me to be on the forefront of that.”
In fact, as a Senator for the School of Arts in CBU’s Student Government Association, Esther was gaining valuable experience, meeting and discussing policies on campus that worked – or didn’t – and writing new policy to improve student life. “What I’m doing now is more enforcing policy, so it is connected,” she explains. “You have to understand the written policy to be able to enforce it.”
While her enthusiasm for her job at the EEOC echoes her work with the SGA, even more it echoes what she loved about her work in Tonga: connecting with people. “This isn’t like other work,” she explained. “People don’t contact us because something good happened. They contact us because they were harassed at work because of their race, age, sex, religion – it could be numerous things. Part of my job is just being able to really listen to people’s stories and have compassion for them. In fact, everybody I work with has that compassionate heart, that servant’s heart… we really care about people. We really want to help them. We want to mitigate these situations and right these wrongs. That’s what excites me about learning more about my agency.”
People don’t contact us because something good happened. They contact us because they were harassed at work because of their race, age, sex, religion – it could be numerous things.
On the giving end, Esther knows what kindness and generosity can mean because she’s been on the receiving end, too. She tells how, while she was at CBU, “I met of people who made me more compassionate.” For example, “I didn’t have a car. When I told Dr. Taylor I was interested in teaching but that I couldn’t get myself around, he asked, ‘What else could we do?’ And he created a TA job for me. His kindness and that experience really shaped me.” His creativity in how to meet her need reminds her to find creative solutions to the problems of others.
Dr. Campbell helped shape her, too. The professor’s oversight of Esther’s internship in Cambodia, a partnership with the Harpswell Foundation, gave her confidence and understanding, not only of the young women she worked with and befriended who would have a chance to go to university through the foundation but also of herself.
After all, there were times she struggled in school, too, times she felt alone. But, she says, “It wasn’t because I didn’t have people. I just wasn’t taking advantage of what I had at that time. CBU creates a culture of strong, close community. Everyone at CBU that I was close with were very giving and kind people, people who were the first ones to be there for you if you asked for help. And that’s something that maybe other, bigger schools don’t have – that sense of community, that sense of belonging.”
Even in challenging, rigorous classes, she felt the strength of her peers. When Biological Psychology’s study of the brain’s neurotransmitters confused her, she found herself leaning on fellow softball teammates and the biology majors in the class. She studied hard, relied on their help, and finished with “a pretty good grade.” More than that, she had a deeper understanding of the power of working together.
Now Esther carries CBU’s sense of community with her wherever she goes. From Cambodia to Tonga, from the softball field to a Social Security office, from Alpha Xi Delta sorority to the EEOC, Esther continues to find her greatest joy in helping others: “CBU’s ‘Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve’ has been my model for the past six-plus years. It’s something that really resonates with me. I have a passion for people, to serve them, to help them in any capacity I possibly can.”
How does she do that? “It all comes down to listening to people,” she says, “having compassion for people, getting to know them, listening to their stories, listening to understand. Everybody is different, and everybody goes through different things. Living in a lot of different places has allowed me to get to know lots of different kinds of people and what they go through. That’s something that’s really important in my job.” That’s something that’s important in any job, in any place.
And that’s why, no matter where she goes – and she will go – Esther Ferreira will find ways to help people. And what better success is there?