An Educator Who Needed Sequoias to Help Her Rediscover Roots in Higher Education

The Bonner Network: Budding with Opportunities

Recalling diverse influences including heart transplants, California sequoias, and mentors in higher education, Marisa’s journey has consistently been rooted in the Bonner Network. 

Presently, she serves as the Assistant Director in the Shepherd Program at Washington and Lee University – directing the Bonner Program, teaching classes in the Shepherd Poverty Studies Program, and matching students’ academic interests with Lexington, Virginia and the surrounding regions’ needs through community-based research projects. Though she adores her current work, Marisa’s passion for higher education sprouted for the first time after pursuing graduate studies to become an organ transplant coordinator.

The Roots

As a senior at Allegheny College in 2009, Marisa began her postgraduate job search with the intention to “do good in the world.” This motivation led her to shadow an organ transplant coordinator, who inspired her with excitement. She could not only see good —witnessing lives being saved every day — but also play a direct role in the process. Only after beginning to pursue prerequisite coursework for the medical school program did she realize that her path was askew.

“I wanted this instant gratification,” she opened up, “and I believed that I would have it in this role.”

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Marisa, like many recent Bonner graduates, was looking for something more. She escaped to Sequoia National Park in California, where she was inspired not only by planting trees, but also by Wendell Berry’s poem Manifesto: The Mad Liberation Front. Berry reminded her the value of investing in things she couldn’t fully see to fruition — a complete 180 degree turn from her immediately satisfying work with transplants.

“You think ‘sequoia’ and in a whole lifetime, it can only grow to be a couple feet tall...that’s really how I see this work. The Bonner Program is investing in the world in a really, really significant and spiritual way that’s also deeply strategic.”

Branching Into Higher Education

An AmeriCorps VISTA position kept Marisa at her alma mater, Allegheny College, to serve as co-coordinator for the Bonner Program, where she worked for two years before discovering that she was searching for something more once again. Driven by this motivation, she applied to Bonner staff positions all over the country. With the support of the Bonner network and people like Dave Roncolato, Director of Civic Engagement at Allegheny; Pat Donohue, former director of The College of New Jersey’s program; and the Bonner Foundation Staff members who had become friends, Marisa found herself as Assistant Director of the Shepherd Program at Washington and Lee. Two weeks later, she met her husband.

Marisa just gave birth to her second daughter and thanks her responsibilities as a mother for teaching her to separate work and her personal life. With balance, Marisa is thriving in her role and educational pursuits. She just completed a Master’s in Creative and Critical Thinking at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. 


Marisa is currently in her dream job, citing Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World’s version of the “SweetSpot” for her reasoning:


“[It talks about] where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. And I feel like I found that. That’s as meaningful as it gets for me.”

She advises other Bonners who may find themselves in journeys as wayward as her own that they’re going to be okay. Bonner teaches people to live a civically engaged life and whether they go into this work or not, the network is as supportive and far-reaching as a sequoia's roots.

It may take camping under some of the largest trees in the world and a book or two, but, “you’re gonna be okay.”


To learn more about Marisa Charley, check out the resources that changed her life:


Written by Ashlee Renich-Malek, Bonner Alumna of Stetson University ’18

Read Marisa's job profile here.

Click here for a downloadable version of this profile.