Exclusive: "I Don't Believe I Have a Career"

Kristy Layton '97 explains why she is drawn to what some call "hopeless causes"


Kristi Layton, 1997 SPU alumna, at a pharmacy/lab in Georgetown, Guyana.

By Kristy Layton '97


Editor's Note: When Kristy Layton, Class of 1997, returned to the United States after five years with Mercy Ships, she earned a master of public health from Yale University. Below is her admissions essay to Yale, reprinted with her permission.


Across the street, three barefoot Laotian boys across the street play an invented game with a well-worn stuffed bear. They seem to know who's winning, evidenced by their animated chatter and orderly rotations. I smile at this street-side playfulness, but can't shake an overcast-awareness of this seriousness around me — serious pain mixed with serious beauty.


Only a week ago, I stood near a mass grave in Cambodia's notorious Killing Fields after a heavy rain. Brushing my foot across the mud, I noticed the osseus-white gleam of a tooth, a shred of bone, a disintegrated T-shirt. I've spent most of my adult life in nations where the human-development elevator never rises past the basement floor — lands haunted by unspeakable horror, the sort of place one never expects to find beauty, peace, or love.

Existing at a fragile, knife-edged apex

Mostly, I've felt like a spectator in these climates, so vastly different from my own — culturally, economically, politically, spiritually. And like watching these boys play their game, I cannot understand the winning and losing. Without an explanation, I could watch forever and never figure out the rules.

I don't believe a master of public health degree will do much for my career — simply because I don't believe I have a career. Instead, I exist at the fragile, knife-edged apex of what Frederick Buechner defined as vocation: "Where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."


My interest does not drive me to career advancement or academic respect, rather, to knowing the rules of this global game I find myself in. During my years living abroad, I developed a micro-level understanding of global health and vulnerability, but formulating theories based on patterns of embraces and repulsions is like trying to weave baskets tight enough to hold water. All the energy I can muster over a lifetime will remain insufficient without a broader understanding of global-health issues.


A crash course in compassion

Selecting nursing as a profession gave me the flexibility to spend my first five post-baccalaureate years volunteering for Mercy Ships, a nongovernmental organization that operates mobile maritime hospitals. Those years — in nations such as Benin, Togo, Guinea, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and The Gambia — were my crash course in compassion, injustice, and the often paralyzing complexity of relief and development.

Adapting to this nomadic lifestyle, I rarely stayed in one nation longer than five months. I traded currency, language, and culture routinely as my 522-foot floating community sailed from port to port. Despite the exhausting duties of medical relief work, I spent my free weekends dancing and drawing with rescued child slaves and ex-child combatants. I joined with researchers at Louisiana State University School of Medicine investigating the presence of folate-metabolizing genes in our African orofacial cleft population, and volunteered to create a web-based orientation program for new medical volunteers. As the conflicting weight of deep despair and vast joy mounted, I found an outlet in writing, channeling what I couldn't manage to verbalize into essays and journal articles.


This pursuit of widespread joy

In 2003, I relocated to New Haven, Connecticut, finding a small community of like-minded social justice advocates. I promptly joined the upstart, grassroots volunteer organization Justice For Children International. Partnering with workers in the developing world, JFCI raises awareness and financial resources for the prevention, rescue, and aftercare of sexually exploited children. I traveled to Southeast Asia twice in 2003 to research the rabbit-hole of commercial sexual exploitation of children in that hotbed of human trafficking. Returning to New Haven to pursue graduate studies, I recently dipped my feet in the U.S. health care system: accepting an R.N. position in Yale-New Haven Hospital's Pediatric Emergency Department.

After years of living among the dying, the bruised, the withered, and the oppressed, I have found my deepest gladness among individuals' ravenous hunger for survival. I am certain pursuing a master of public health degree in global health is the next logical step in my vocational pursuit. I want to decipher the rules of this strange and serious game ... this alleviation of human suffering, this pursuit of widespread joy.

Every spring, in his final lecture to Harvard School of Government students, social ethicist Jim Wallis charges his impending graduates with the critical difference between career and vocation: "... the people in power just want you to manage the already-existing systems to run the institutions of wealth and power ... What a waste of your talent. If you are as good as they say you are … you should take on the really hopeless causes — the things people don't think have a chance, the movement for real fundamental change. Then we'll see how good you really are."

I am ready to see how good I really am.


Exclusives: Related Response Video and Update


Kristy Layton '97 recounts an awkward moment when she was readjusting to life in America.


Response asks Kristy Layton what she's been doing since she wrote "The Sixth Finger of Courage."



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