For a chemistry major with a biochemistry concentration like John Halifax ’18, spending the next year as a fellow with the Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS) may seem like an unlikely career path, but Halifax’s Haverford experience has shown that the line between social justice and the natural sciences is not impermeable.
“The Haverford community and the Haverford academic experience are very socially conscious,” he said. “Although the connection between working in childhood literacy and studying chemistry may not be obvious, the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills I have honed through my studies will be useful working for solutions to issues facing the Philadelphia education system.”
Halifax was particularly inspired to pursue social justice work by taking two sociology courses that emphasized the inequality of access to public resources for communities of color and poor and working class communities across the U.S..
“Those two courses left me with a desire to do grassroots work to try and fix some of these of these problems,” he said. “I think that is part of why I loved Haverford so much. I loved studying chemistry and would major in it again tomorrow, but the two small seminar classes on sociology that I had the opportunity to take were very influential.”
Through QVS, Halifax will be working for West Philadelphia Alliance for the Children (WePAC), a nonprofit that sponsors mentoring programs and free library services for the next generation of Philadelphia learners.
“By serving with QVS and working at WePAC, I want to help improve the educational infrastructure for children in the city,” he said. “I was extremely fortunate to grow up with fantastic educational opportunities and these led to me going to Haverford and enjoying my studies. It is a travesty that some children don’t get adequate educational opportunities and I look forward to working in the Philadelphia school system to address and redress the inequities in our education system.”
Halifax, who spent his early life in both San Francisco and the United Kingdom, looks forward to getting to know Philadelphia better and returning to an urban environment.
“Haverford was one of the few liberal arts colleges near a major city, and the thought of living right by Philadelphia was brilliant. Being closely connected to the city was always part of why I loved Haverford so much,” said Halifax, who was also a member of the men’s soccer team. “While at Haverford I went to the city often, visiting museums, getting food, seeing concerts and meeting friends who went to other Philadelphia universities. After visiting the city, I would always retreat back to bucolic Haverford. I felt like I got a lot from Philadelphia, but I did not get to know or contribute to the city’s community, so I wanted to spend a year serving in Philadelphia to give back to a city that has given me so much.”
At WePAC, Halifax will be working to increase the awareness of WePAC in the communities the organization serves, and will manage relationships with key partner organizations. This will take the form of doing outreach in the neighborhoods WePAC serves to develop new community partnerships, recruit new volunteers, and identify opportunities for WePAC to better support the families it serves. His other responsibilities will include planning monthly service events, attending community meetings, and developing outreach materials to use with a range of audiences.
“I hope that in doing this work I get the chance to meet a lot of people who I wouldn’t perhaps otherwise meet,” he said. “I want to better understand the Philadelphia community, and ultimately become part of it. I am also looking forward to living communally with the other Philadelphia QVS fellows and achieving personal spiritual growth with QVS’s help.”
After completing his fellowship, Halifax plans to return to the realm of scientific research with a new perspective on the relationship between community and chemistry.
“I think it is crucial for all of us, including scientific researchers, to remain grounded in our local community and work in any way we can within our profession to help others around us,” he said. “I think sometimes people can become overly focused on a specific task at hand and forget their work’s broader implications in the world and the community around them. I hope that by serving with QVS for a year I can grow personally and improve upon what I believe is a solid foundation of social consciousness and bring that with me wherever I go in life.”
“Where They’re Headed” is a blog series reporting on the post-collegiate plans of recent Haverford graduates.
Photo: John Halifax ’18. Photo by David Sinclair.