#SECPursuit: Missouri's Maria Effinger
COLUMBIA, Mo. - For as long as she can remember, Maria Effinger has been committed to serving others.
From the many days she spent as a child admiring her mother impact young lives in a classroom to her recent service trip to Ghana, the University of Missouri distance runner and cross country athlete has had a lifelong dedication to giving back.
"I think that one of the most important things we can do as people and as citizens of the United States is to give back," Effinger said. "We are so fortunate in so many ways; I don't see why we should sit around and just let life pass us by. One of the most important things is to help the people around us grow and to allow them to have some of the opportunities that we have."
Effinger, who is beginning her redshirt junior year on the Missouri cross country team, is an elementary education major whose career interests - with her mother Ramona, a fourth-grade teacher, as her role model - remained a constant throughout her formative years.
"I used to go into my mom's classroom growing up and I was absolutely fascinated by how she could grab the attention of students and completely engage them in learning," Effinger said. "She really made a huge impact on the lives of her students. Seeing that growing up, I couldn't think of a better way to spend an adult life than trying to help mold the lives of students in teaching."
When one of her professors offered her the opportunity this past spring to spent the month of June in Ghana as part of the Service Learning: Global Service in Ghana initiative, Effinger jumped at the chance. She spent a month in Cape Coast, Ghana, working in a local elementary school, teaching students ages 7-10.
"It was the most amazing experience," Effinger said. "I got to not only connect with the students in the school, but I learned a ton about myself as both a teacher and a person, and I opened up my eyes to a different part of the world. It was an incredible and eye-opening experience."
Effinger's charge was teaching students in Cape Coast but, along the way, it was her own point of view that was forever changed.
"You go over there and are used to our way of living here in the U.S. with everything right there at your fingertips and technology everywhere," Effinger said. "Over there, they live such happy and full lives without all of the social media and fast food and jobs that we have. Not everyone there has a chance to go to school or get a job. You come back here and everything is much more focused on materialistic things. You see how fortunate we are in the U.S. and it makes you see our world a lot differently."
Her trip to Ghana has prompted Effinger to get even more involved on her own campus, as she is now working for the Office of Service Learning at Missouri.
"I'll be advocating for students on campus to go out and serve, whether it's an opportunity abroad or something in Columbia," she said. "Not only does it make you feel good about yourself knowing that you're helping the community, but you're also helping others at the same time. One person can really make a huge difference in the lives of others."
As passionate as Effinger is about service, she is equally focused on her running career. Coming from a long line of Missouri graduates, including her parents and her aunt Julie Effinger Merrill, a five-time All-American swimmer at Mizzou, Effinger was a swimmer in her younger days, but later shifted her focus to running after developing a proficiency for it.
"I had always been a swimmer growing up, but once I got into middle school, I tried out for the track team and then did track in high school," Effinger said. "I've always really enjoyed it. I started becoming more serious with running and came to Missouri cross country camp in high school. I have always been in love with Columbia, so I was very excited when I was able to become a part of the team.
"Since coming to Mizzou, my love for running has just grown," she continued. "I have amazing teammates."
Effinger maintains a busy schedule between her efforts in the community, on the course and in the classroom, but finding time for all three facets is something of great importance to her. Her experiences in college, including her recent trip to Ghana, will forever shape her outlook.
"It's definitely not easy and, thankfully, I am very good at managing my time," Effinger said. "I've realized, especially in the last year, that my time here at Mizzou and I want to soak up all of the resources they have here while I still can. Traveling to Ghana this past June and being on the Mizzou track team have been the two most amazing experiences of my life."