‘Service is an Attitude:’ BC Grad Talks Volunteering at a Jamaican High School

Jay Sullivan

Boston College’s mission statement details its core, Jesuit values, especially global leadership and personal formation with respect to ethics, religion, and intellect. On Tuesday night, BC brought back one alumnus who devoted five years to exploring and implementing that mission in the world.

Jay Sullivan, BC ’84, spoke at an Emerging Leaders Program event about his experience living and serving in Kingston, Jamaica, after his graduation from BC. Sullivan traveled through BC’s International Volunteer Program, now part of the international Jesuit Volunteer Corps. An English major, Sullivan taught at St. George’s College, a Jesuit high school, while living and volunteering at the Alpha Boys School, a Catholic orphanage. The talk was followed by a question-and-answer session with a panel of Sullivan’s fellow volunteers.

Living at the Alpha Boys School, Sullivan, the resident nuns, and the children grew close through their many shared tasks, Sullivan said. The school grew its own food in its garden, and the facilities needed regular cleaning. In the evening, Sullivan read the children stories while playing music to help them settle in for the night. With Sullivan’s help, the nuns provided the boys with a variety of activities, including board game time and musical instrument instruction to help place the boys in the army band after they aged out of the school. Most importantly, Sullivan said that the sisters structured one-on-one time between the children and adults, a crucial part of childhood formation that orphaned children tend to miss.

“If you give people an opportunity to just be who they are, the best in them will come out, particularly for kids,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan and his fellow volunteers did not shy away from describing the difficulties of the children living at the orphanage. Sullivan explained that one of the most pressing and constant issues was the outbreaks of gun violence near the school, and Sullivan even described the outer wall of a nearby school as pockmarked from bullets. Another volunteer contracted dengue fever, and all of them had to adjust to a different classroom culture from the United States.


“We have to put the energy into figuring out ‘How do I add value?’, ‘What is it that motivates me?’, and ‘What is the value I want to bring?’”

-Jay Sullivan, BC ’84


Throughout Jamaica stand pipes that draw up fresh water. The cover of Sullivan’s book is a picture he took of a boy in the orphanage helping his friend get water. Sullivan interpreted this selflessness as the epitome of service.

“Service is not an event,” Sullivan said. “Service is an attitude. Service is something you want to bring with you wherever you go, no matter what you’re doing.”

Sullivan also emphasized the need for having diverse and supportive friendships and communities and said he drew significant inspiration from other people in Jamaica. He told the story of a dentist who came to Jamaica for two weeks every year with his wife to give treatment to the orphans. The husband came for his 50th year in 2015. Sullivan even had the chance to meet Mother Teresa at the Jamaican cardinal’s house.

“You have to hold a community of people around you,” Sullivan said. “I couldn’t have done what I did in Jamaica, being present for these boys, without the support of my colleagues, who were there when I needed an ear to talk to, who were there as somebody to give me a break from the work that I was doing. It’s that combination of people that allows you to live out that spirit of who you are.”

In the final section of his talk, Sullivan discussed the linking themes of his service experiences. He related the importance of finding direction and figuring out one’s place in life in order to be present for others. Much of his speaking work has focused on helping people to find what they want in life and how it is meaningful. For example, he highlighted the importance of teaching people in marketing to learn to give special attention to their customers’ needs.

Sullivan used the example of Mother Teresa, speaking about how she felt called to service but still felt like she struggled to find God in her work. He stressed, however, that no one should have their life plan figured out, just a next step.

After he left Jamaica in 1989, Sullivan went on to Fordham Law School before working for two years at Covenant House, helping homeless and runaway children and then going on to work in corporate law. He is the father of four children—one a BC grad, and two who currently attend BC (Magdalen, his youngest, is the managing editor of The Heights).

Despite spending time in the corporate world, he did not forget his time abroad. Sullivan published a memoir of his time in Jamaica in 2013 entitled Raising Gentle Men: Lives at the Orphanage Edge. The text is used to prepare BC Jamaica volunteers for trips and was used as a freshman common text at the University of Scranton in 2014. His second book, What Do You Mean By That? : How to Communicate More Effectively at Work and Beyond, is also due for release soon.

“We have to put the energy into figuring out ‘How do I add value?’, ‘What is it that motivates me?’, and ‘What is the value I want to bring?’” Sullivan said.

Featured Image by Sarah Hodgens / Heights Staff