FERRUM — Rather than lie on a beach or road trip with friends, Mark Kellam spent most of his fall and spring breaks rehabbing houses damaged by natural disasters.
During his time at Ferrum College, Kellam made six disaster recovery mission trips and served as the student leader on four of them. The trips have taken him to locations in Virginia, but also as far as Texas and Florida.
“I just like being useful,” Kellam said.
The trips taught Kellam valuable lessons, from how to use a nail gun to the power of the Ferrum College motto of “not self, but others.”
They are lessons that Kellam, 21, will take with him into the real world, which he’ll soon enter. On Saturday, he will graduate from Ferrum College with a degree in environmental science.
Ferrum met all the criteria Kellam set in his college search: a respected environmental science program, small student body and a rural setting ideal for a lover of the outdoors. Plus, he was offered a spot in the honors program, along with a scholarship.
When Kellam arrived at Ferrum, he was disappointed to learn the college didn’t send its students on mission trips during school breaks. Kellam started going on mission trips in middle school, through his church.
But during Kellam’s sophomore year, the college organized a disaster recovery trip. As soon as he got the email, Kellam replied “sign me up.”
“He’s just an absolute natural when it comes to his passion for disaster recovery work,” said Jan Nicholson Angle, who as dean of the chapel oversees the spiritual life office that sponsors the trips.
It wasn’t long before Kellam was tapped to be a student leader of the trips, a role in which he served as “the bridge in between the students and the faculty and staff who are running it.” That meant everything from running meetings, to corralling student paperwork, to making sure students stayed hydrated on the job.
Kellam was skilled at keeping the group on task, ensuring they accomplished as much as possible during their trips and helped families to establish their new normal, Nicholson Angle said.
The best part of the trips, Kellam said, was connecting with the people whose homes the group was rebuilding and hearing their stories. The students not only repaired homes, but also spirits.
“I’ve seen quite a few people on the site of their homes being fixed up tear up and give hugs,” he said. “It’s just really special.”
Organizing the trips could be stressful, Kellam said, but he is stubbornly determined. Kellam offered an example: During his sophomore year, he set a goal of walking 1,000 miles in one semester. He started small, logging about 3 to 5 miles a day, but realized he’d have to do quite a bit more to reach his goal.
Rather than cast it aside — it was a goal Kellam created for himself after all, an effort at personal growth — he started walking more, averaging 11 miles a day and even more as the semester’s end drew near. Kellam hit the 1,000 mile mark on reading day, just before exams started.
Between those walks and various mapping projects Kellam did on campus given an interest in the field of GIS, or geographic information systems, he got to know Ferrum’s grounds well.
“I know pretty much every inch of this campus,” Kellam said.
Kellam plans to pursue a career in GIS, a field he’s interested in because it uses technology and also would allow him to get outside every now and then. This past semester, Kellam spent a few hours a week working with Franklin County’s GIS department.
Delia Heck, a professor of environmental science, said Kellam excelled in her GIS course. A project of his even inspired her to redesign the assignment for future courses.
For several years the college has had an internship agreement with both Franklin County GIS and utility company American Electric Power, Heck said, but students must be truly stellar to be recommended for them. Most aren’t ready to slide into those positions after just one GIS class, she said, and sometimes the slots go unfilled.
But Kellam was interested to learn more, and did several practicums in which he built on what he’d learned in Heck’s class. When he came to her asking about independent research, she helped set him up with the internship.
“He sought that out,” Heck said. “He’s very driven and hungry to learn.”
Kellam was the rare student who was ready for the opportunity, where Heck said he learned how to use drones in mapping, skills he applied when an EF3 tornado recently came through Franklin County.
“He was just the kind of student that comes along every once in a while that you wish you could keep,” Heck said. “But he needs to go on.”
After graduation, Kellam will begin a 10-week internship at the county government center. He starts May 20, which is also Kellam’s birthday. This year he’ll be celebrating not just another year on the books, but his entrance into adulthood.