ALUMNI PROFILES • Fall 2000

Class Acts

An alum's gift of paper is making a difference in an L.A. classroom.

Although only girls are shown in this snapshot that teacher Estela Vieira sent alumna Cindy Lefton, the class had lots of boys. But as Vieira explains on the back of the photo: "My girls insisted on a picture alone with me. Since they were the minority in the classroom, I had to give in!"

The smiles on the faces of the girls and their teacher—and the upbeat artwork from room 32—say it all. They capture the essence of how much a deliberate act of kindness can mean to a child, to a class, to a teacher—and one day, perhaps, to others.

Part one of the story appeared in the spring 1998 issue of this magazine—an article called "L.A. Story," by alumna Janni Lee Simner, A.B. '89, about the experiences of architecture alumna J. Meghan McChesney, A.B. '94, in Los Angeles inner-city schools. (McChesney is no longer with the school system, but the impact of her story still lingers.)

When St. Louisan Cindy Lefton, B.S. '88 in industrial and organizational psychology and A.M. '90 in human resources management—whose father, brother, and cousins are also WU alumni—received her copy of Washington University Magazine and Alumni News and read the article, the following passage particularly disturbed her: "Once, [McChesney] recalls, a former WU classmate flew to Los Angeles on business. Over dinner McChesney mentioned buying her own paper for her classroom. "That was mind boggling to him," she says, "because not only did his company have all the paper in the world, but he could use his expense account for dinner and the company wouldn't think twice about it. It was shocking to me, too, to be reminded that the business world has so much. A box of paper would mean a lot to my classroom."

"I thought to myself, 'A box of paper!'" says Lefton, who is manager of operations at Psychological Associates and a staff nurse in the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. "It was hard to imagine that schoolchildren could be in such need."

Lefton had an idea—and part two of the story began.

First Lefton phoned McChesney, who was "very excited about what I had in mind." Then she contacted the St. Louis vendor Pedro's Planet. The manager helped Lefton obtain paper wholesale, for less than $50 a case.

Every month throughout the remainder of the school year, Carina Espitia, Jesus Medina, and Sheyla Rojas and the rest of the children in Estela Vieira's class in Compton's Kelly Elementary School helped open a big box from St. Louis. It holds "a wonderful treat," Vieira says: "sheets and sheets of bright white recycled paper."

Now students like Sheyla can freely write essays such as why "I am thankful for my family," and Jesus can draw large and lavish illustrations for "The Cookie Bear," a class story about a (smiling) grandpa and grandma who invite "all the children from Ms. Vieira's and Ms. Fabel's classes" (also smiling) to eat a bear-shaped cookie that is half the size of the grandpa. And now Vieira and her teaching partner, Anne Fabel, could send the students (some still smiling) home with "a substantial homework packet" weekly.

"You have been making a huge contribution to my students and to my school," Vieira wrote in a letter to Lefton.

As McChesney shared with our readers, and Lefton understood, a box of paper certainly can mean a lot. —Judy Watts


Envisioning an Ideal Community

Warren Boeschenstein, B.Arch. '66

Creating a sense of community through urban planning and architecture has been the central theme of Warren Boeschenstein's work—in fact, he has dedicated his career to helping people more easily share their living space with each other. Boeschenstein, a professor of architecture and, until recently, associate dean of students at the University of Virginia, feels that town and city planning should focus on ways in which people can enjoy more intimate, neighborly settings, even in the context of major urban sprawl. Not only has Boeschenstein, an architect and civic designer, developed innovative plans for building transit-oriented community environments in Virginia, he recently completed a book on small East Coast towns that serve as ideal community settings.

Boeschenstein's appreciation of community guided him during his recent study of these historic settlements. The resulting book, Historic American Towns along the Atlantic Coast, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, celebrates the factors that have preserved the character of these towns.

The book examines 140 coastal towns, focusing on nine that are among the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in North America, including Kennebunkport, Maine; Edgartown, Massachusetts; and Saint Augustine, Florida.

"It seemed that these towns respected certain themes in terms of scale and character of public space and had both access and relationship to their natural environments, whether it was water, wetlands, or surrounding woodlands," says Boeschenstein. "These settlements also represent a cultural spectrum in the United States. Different ethnic groups settled these towns, and I examined the history of architecture and town planning over different periods. These towns provide a wonderful legacy."

In his book, Boeschenstein addresses the problems towns like these face now and in the future. "These towns," he explains, "are significantly threatened from the sea by rising water and from the land by tourism." But there is at least one solution he feels these communities can adopt—preventing automobiles, wider roads, and parking lots from eroding the towns' character. "These are pedestrian towns, and they ought to be retained that way," he says.

Not only has Boeschenstein sought out ideal communities along the East Coast, he has fused his search for ideal settings into his own work. He has developed plans for establishing transit-oriented environments along the Washington, D.C./Richmond Rail Corridor, along the Metro in northern Virginia, and in his hometown of Charlottesville. His goal: to create a community setting across a large urban area, making the transit systems more convenient and tying them into compact, pedestrian-oriented environments. His work has received awards from the American Institute of Architects, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

A native St. Louisan, Boeschenstein believes that his years at Washington University's School of Architecture helped direct him toward the work he is doing now. "The School emphasized the tradition of being of service—of identifying societal problems and searching for ways to address these problems," says Boeschenstein, who also holds degrees from Amherst College and Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.

In the midst of continued urban sprawl, Boeschenstein believes that a certain simplicity and small-town feel can still be achieved. By focusing on the serenity, charm, and comfort of community in his vision for urban development, Boeschenstein is helping create ideal settings for the future.—Ryan Rhea, A.B. '96


Ancestry Informs Agricultural Vision

Stephanie Mercier, A.B. '83

Stephanie Mercier's passion for economics, combined with her Midwestern sensibility and connectedness to the land, has given her a prominent role in U.S. agricultural policy-making.

Originally from Ames, Iowa, Mercier attended Washington University in the early 1980s, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1983. After returning home to complete a doctorate in agricultural economics at Iowa State University, Mercier took a position as an economist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (ERS). Nine years of hard work there paid off; she is now the minority staff economist on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry (Ag Committee)—the committee charged with oversight and formulating federal agricultural policy.

Mercier became interested in politics early. "I was just glued to the TV when the Watergate hearings were going on," she says. And that interest developed further when she participated in the Junior Year Abroad program at the University of Sussex, a hotbed of student political activism during the Thatcher era. "The British take politics very seriously," Mercier observes, "in contrast to Americans, who often don't even vote."

As an analyst with the ERS, Mercier was introduced to federal policy-making. While there, she developed a vision of family farm participation in American agriculture, and now in her role with the Ag Committee, she works toward that vision. "I find my job invigorating. I'd say that 80 to 90 percent of the time, I really like what I'm doing."

Part of Mercier's job is to work with land-grant universities. Agricultural colleges throughout the country share research results with the Ag Committee, which in turn uses this information to create policy, passing it along to the USDA for implementation.

"A major part of the analytical work is done outside the committee; we simply don't have time to do it all ourselves," she says. "To get the research done, we work with faculty at the University of Missouri at Columbia, Texas A&M University, and others.

"One of my major responsibilities is to facilitate the translation of this research into policy. It's really a grass-roots development process. We have a symbiotic relationship with the universities; we get good research out of them, and they get the opportunity to provide the information that helps guide the policy process and ultimately legislation."

The Ag Committee deals with issues as they come up. A recent example is the Crop Insurance Program. Recent economic and policy developments had revealed weaknesses in the program; this year Congress undertook a major effort to strengthen the program, attempting to make it more attractive to farmers. The president signed that bill on June 20. Perennial issues, such as global warming and biotechnology, are always under discussion. Mercier participates in several conferences each year dealing with such issues.

Although both of her parents were professors at Iowa State, Mercier has farming in her blood. Her grandparents and their parents were Iowa and Nebraska farmers, immigrants from Europe and Canada. This ancestry has informed her vision as an agricultural economist. As her late grandmother told her, she is the closest thing to a farmer left in the family.

But a keen interest in politics fueled Mercier's career climb as well, an interest she hopes more students will share. "Perhaps you've heard the saying that politics is like making sausage"—you don't always want to know how it's done. I can say that it's worthwhile to find out how it's done." Aaron Belz


Experiencing the Law in Many Realms

Eve Shapiro Cervantez, A.B. '85

Eve Shapiro Cervantez has had an eclectic professional life. How else would you describe a career that's included China, prisons, the U.S. Supreme Court, and actress Loni Anderson?

While at Washington University, Cervantez majored in Chinese history and wrote for Student Life. Her post-graduation plan was to spend a year teaching English in Beijing, which she did, then return to the States to work as a reporter, which she also did. But after 18 months at the Wapakoneta Daily News in her native Ohio, Cervantez realized journalism wasn't for her.

That's when she reconnected with William Kirby, who had been her professor of East Asian studies and her college mentor. "He suggested law school or business school—something that would allow me to work with China," she says.

The conversation prompted her to apply to law school, but not before spending a year studying Mandarin at Taiwan Normal University. Moving on to Harvard University, where she was an editor of the Law Review, she set her sights on international law.

"I then realized that international law with China meant 'basic contract negotiations.' I also found out that I was more interested in litigation and trial work," Cervantez says.

With that in mind, Cervantez took her J.D. to northern California where she clerked for a federal judge, a move that stirred the political activist inside of her. Because the judge's district included Pelican Bay State Prison, he received numerous petitions from prisoners that highlighted alleged violations of their civil rights. Judge Charles A. Legge took the cases seriously, despite their handwritten pleas and lack of legal vernacular.

"Judge Legge never wanted us to dismiss the cases because the prisoners didn't have legal representation. Since his job is to get the law right and we were his clerks, we spent a great deal of time researching [the prisoners'] petitions," she says.

The clerks' findings? The prisoners—deemed the "worst of the worst" because of their past violations—were not receiving basic medical care and were victims of guard brutality. The work so inspired Cervantez that she took a job with the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit agency within walking distance of San Quentin prison. During this time, she helped bring a class action lawsuit against Pelican Bay, which resulted in a six-week trial and a verdict in the prisoners' favor.

"These prisoners have done horrible things, but they're still human—and they have basic rights like anyone else," she says.

Eventually, Cervantez decided to broaden her legal experience and went to work for Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk, & Rabkin, a full-service San Francisco firm, where she now does general commercial litigation with an emphasis on appeals and matters involving the Americans with Disabilities Act. Nonetheless, she keeps a hand in prison law, taking pro bono cases for prisoners. She served second chair on a case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in which prisons were forced to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Disabled prisoners had a terrible time," she says. "Wheelchairs don't fit into the cell, so guards would just pick up a prisoner and drop him on the bed. And what if he had to use the bathroom?"

After that case, Cervantez entered a different legal world altogether, when she helped actress Loni Anderson appeal a case in which her former business partner was awarded money after a joint skin-care business went sour. The partner had sued Anderson for not marketing the product aggressively. When Cervantez' firm took the appeal, Anderson won.

"I wanted experience in different areas of the law. I feel as if I'm in a good position to work on just about anything now." —Nancy Mays

E-mail: evecervantez@hotmail.com