2020 grad leads troops at home and abroad

Navigating graduation during a pandemic is not something easy to prepare for. But since a scout’s motto is “be prepared,” it gave 2020 Berea College graduate Julia Roberts a unique advantage.

Social distancing, remote learning and moving off campus make things difficult for even the most resilient youth, but Roberts was accustomed to life’s complications. She grew up moving often. Her father, a farmer/rancher, and her mother, a speech pathologist, followed a nomadic lifestyle.

“I grew up in a lot of different places all over the country and in New Zealand,” Roberts said. “My parents really liked traveling.”

Julia Roberts posing in uniform in front of a stream.
Julia Roberts graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in business. She grew up participating in Girl Scouts, and during her time in Berea, she served as assistant scout master for Berea’s first all-girl troop of the Scouts BSA.

Roberts found frequently switching schools challenging, but when her brother became active in Boy Scouts of America, it got her thinking. Scouting is the same no matter where you go. The rules stay the same, the handbook, the order—it all stays the same.

“I felt by myself,” she lamented, “but my brother had a whole troop.”

Eventually landing in Ohio, Roberts made the change to online schooling and threw herself into Girl Scouts while helping her brother earn his Eagle Scout ranking, the highest achievement in Boy Scouts. Eventually, Julia earned the Gold Award, the highest achievement in Girl Scouts. Only about 5 percent of eligible girls earn the award.

It was through scouting that Roberts found her way to Berea College. A fellow scout told her about the school.

“I had a friend back home who applied and wasn’t accepted, and she said she thought it would be a good college for me,” Roberts said. “That, and Berea being [committed to sustainability] made me feel drawn to the school.”

Roberts applied and was accepted as part of the Bonner Scholars Program, a service-learning experience that focuses on personal growth, teamwork, leadership development and scholarship. Bonner students are required to work in community-service labor positions and commit to summer service projects. All this was part of Roberts’ experience of scouting, so becoming a Bonner Scholar at Berea was a natural transition. 

Working as a Bonner Scholar with Sustainable Berea, a local organization dedicated to developing local food systems, Roberts was looking for a unique summer experience.

I had a friend back home who applied and wasn’t accepted, and she said she thought it would be a good college for me. That, and Berea being [committed to sustainability] made me feel drawn to the school.

Julia Roberts ’20

“I was trying to find an internship and service project all at the same time,” she said. “I was having trouble finding anything.”

Again, she spoke with a fellow scout, who told her, “Julia, there are scouts everywhere. Why don’t you look at that?” Roberts describes this as a “light-bulb moment.” She began searching for a list of scouting associations and sent close to 100 emails.

“I was up for anywhere,” she said. 

Anywhere was Tunisia. There, she discovered an opportunity to work with the Tunisian Scouts Young Voices, a partnership between Tunisian and Danish scouts to encourage boys and girls to be civil advocates.

In Tunisia, Roberts worked with more than a dozen scout troops from many different places. She prepared presentations in English and worked on projects related to anti-bullying and how to be an effective global citizen. She also participated in advocacy workshops on engaging with refugees and took on the rather unique global challenge of sorting name badges in different languages.

But it wasn’t all work. Roberts experienced important cultural events while in Tunisia. Her stay was during the holy month of Ramadan, an Islamic period of prayer and fasting. 

“There is fasting all day,” Roberts said, “and my hosts wanted me to be comfortable during meals. They would say, ‘We don’t care if you do eat lunch.’ But it was too awkward, so I was … half fasting.”

Fast is broken each night at sundown. “They would eat from 7:30 p.m. to 3 a.m., and I got to spend [this time] with several families,” she said. “We had so much food. I would go to bed, and they would wake me up at midnight and ask if I wanted pasta.”

The experience culminated with a campfire, where the older scouts put on a pretend wedding.  Traditional Tunisian weddings last between three and seven days with traditional music and elaborate costumes.

Once she was back home, Roberts continued her work with the scouts by serving as the assistant scout master for Berea’s first all-girl troop of the Scouts BSA, formerly the Boy Scouts of America. She has been helping her troop work through the ranks by teaching first aid, fire making, knife skills and sharpening, swimming and camping, to name a few.

There is fasting all day and my hosts wanted me to be comfortable during meals. They would say, ‘We don’t care if you do eat lunch.’ But it was too awkward, so I was … half fasting.

Julia Roberts ’20

“Obviously, I hope they all get Eagle,” she said, referring to the same rank her brother achieved, which until recently was not available to girls.

She recently brought her girl’s troop and her Tunisian scouts together via an online video platform. The troops discussed similarities and differences both culturally and in scouts. They also shared their experiences as they navigated life in quarantine due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“I hope I can plan a trip to Tunisia with the girls,” Roberts said.

Quarantine has posed problems for Roberts as well. With very little notice, Berea College students had to leave campus in mid-March in response to the pandemic. She had to find a place to live and learn a new way of finishing her courses from a distance so she could graduate in May.

“It’s a very surreal experience,” she said, “especially because I felt like I went from having to find a job in six weeks to having to find a job tomorrow. I’m also upset I didn’t get to thank my professors. I plan to find an alternate way of doing that.”

Nevertheless, Roberts was prepared for dealing with adversity, both from her experience as a scout and her experience at Berea College. She graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in business and hopes to find a job with a non-profit.

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