My experience with volunteerism began as an adolescent. At age 14, I enrolled in a 6-month zoology course at the Los Angeles Zoo, which meant I dedicated all day each Saturday (plus study time) to this class, which had 2 exams to qualify to serve as a volunteer – less than one-third of the students made it through the end. I learned this content, then I applied it with more than 400 hours of volunteering for the next 3 years as a guide for visitors. I was in high school at a biology and animal science program, so I enjoyed the topic, the rigor, and the public speaking.
After graduating high school at age 17, I went on to college at Penn State University, where I majored in history. I was committed to learning at higher levels, so I asked for exceptions for permission to enroll in three graduate level courses during my junior and senior years—I wanted the challenge now, at age 20, as I was too impatient to wait until I would enter graduate school. I tracked ahead in my curriculum requirements and finished with my bachelor’s degree half a year ahead of schedule, graduating right after turning 21. It was in my time here, with the guidance of mentors in the history department, that I saw so many opportunities, including the most important one of my life: the opportunity to work at Gettysburg National Military Park (GNMP) for the summer.
During my years of undergraduate and graduate education throughout the east coast, I would return to Gettysburg each of 6 summers to work in interpretation. Over time, I developed thirty different public programs on a variety of Civil War topics, thanks to smart leadership and mentorship that encouraged me to keep growing each year I returned. While I did spend a summer in Virginia working for Richmond National Battlefield Park, and I also worked during the academic year in my time in Georgia at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, my time in Gettysburg was the most foundational and transformational. At Gettysburg, I grew: in research skills, in communicating with attentiveness, in public speaking and dialogue with strangers, in understanding people and perspectives, and in visionary leadership.
I am often in disbelief at how fortunate I was during my time at Gettysburg. It is a special place that provided me perspective indeed, but in addition, I happened to be there in the formative years of my life (age 19 through 25) when those who became role models for me demonstrated what it means to dream big and take action. I observed the nonprofit organization affiliated with GNMP raise a large sum of money and apply it toward transforming the visitor experience via new visitor center, museum, and restoration work; I also connected with a local nonprofit organization with an inspiring leader who had what seemed like an unattainable goal for fundraising to establish an entirely new project, which ultimately became a reality. In this environment, I learned the power of how money can be the key resource to achieving good.
These shaped my graduate education and my subsequent career journey. With my interest in history and archival research, as well as my appreciation for dialogue based on varying interpretations of evidence, I entered the graduate program at the University of Virginia for history and later completed that master’s degree in history from the University of New Mexico. Working at historic sites and in an environment of watching the designing of museums, as well as spending time in communities with clear sense of place, I earned another master’s degree in historic preservation from the College of Environment and Design at the University of Georgia. And the exposure I had to seeing charitable fundraising to accomplish audacious goals at Gettysburg, as well as my involvement in community service, brought to my attention the importance of financial resources to help these sites and our communities, which led me to complete a master’s degree in organizational development from the Institute for Nonprofit Organizations at the University of Georgia.
Between my time at Penn State and the University of Virginia, I spent time skiing in Taos, New Mexico. I came because the mountain is steep and I wanted to be challenged, but I would eventually come back because of the historical and cultural significance all around New Mexico. After an internship at The Archaeological Conservancy fresh out of school that allowed me to get to NM, I was able to get a job working for the Los Alamos Historical Society. I found myself again in a key moment at an organization with unprecedented goals that previously would have seemed unattainable, and it had the leadership with the commitment to achieve the vision. In that atmosphere, I used my various backgrounds to help with educational programs, museum work, and a capital and endowment campaign that transformed the organization – the legacy of this group of people coming together at that particular moment to make it happen.
I carry all these experiences with me today to have a clear sense of my core values. How I do anything is how I do everything. I apply my skills and values in my professional career in the insurance and financial industry, and I do so outside business in my life as a citizen of my local and global communities. The latter is why I created this site: to organize my community work and pull together the various elements of Raffi – the citizen – to take another step in my quest for impact by bringing it all together toward one coherent direction.