WASHINGTON SPIRIT — Spring 2009
   

 
Stephanie Kurtzman, Director, Community Service Office; Associate Director, Richard A. Gephardt Institute for Public Service (Photo: Joe Angeles)

Committed to Service
by Betsy Rogers

Building Habitat for Humanity® houses, tutoring migrant children, dancing up a storm for Children’s Miracle Network, painting urban schools, helping clean up after Hurricane Katrina … in these and scores of other settings, Washington University students work tirelessly on behalf of those in need. And Stephanie Kurtzman is behind the scenes, helping to make it happen.

As director of the Community Service Office and associate director of the Richard A. Gephardt Institute for Public Service, Kurtzman puts her whole heart into helping students develop, in her words, “a lifetime commitment to civic engagement.”

This commitment rises naturally out of the campus community, which she says has always had a “passion for service.”

But when she arrived in 1998, she inherited a blank community service slate. Kurtzman jokes that she kept a low profile because she didn’t know how she could support students seeking service projects. Nevertheless, she threw herself into the work and today oversees a landscape bursting with rich and varied service opportunities. Her office maintains a database of 400 agencies where students can—and do—volunteer. Fully 51 percent of University students engage in community service during college, versus 46 percent at comparison schools. Forty-five percent serve in a typical week, against the comparison schools’ 39 percent.

“Through Stephanie’s efforts, Washington University has connected tens of thousands of our students with individuals and agencies that need talented and hard-working people,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “I am confident that her work has influenced many of our current students and alumni to consider a lifelong commitment to service in both their personal and professional lives.”

Characteristically, Kurtzman gives students all the credit. “All we’re really trying to do,” she says, “is keep up with the energy of the students and meet their interests. They have led the way.”

The University embraces the students’ commitment, Kurtzman adds. She is grateful for the steadfast support she’s had building the program. “We’re better staffed than ever before,” she notes. “The institution truly has invested in community service. This is a priority.” Her office has four professional staff and 13 student interns who help oversee projects.

These interns embody a key attribute of Kurtzman’s management: students themselves provide leadership. “That’s how we built this office—on the leadership of students and their vision and dedication,” she explains. “The students are so creative, and they bring a different kind of energy. It allows us to keep branching out into new areas.”

They also bring a high level of competence to projects. “Our students are very bright,” she observes. “They set their goals in a grounded plan. They’re very savvy.”

While Kurtzman credits students with the University’s community service accomplishments, her colleagues are quick to counter that she herself has played an indispensable role.

“Stephanie is terrific!” says Jill Carnaghi, associate vice chancellor for students and dean of campus life. “She has strong organizational and interpersonal skills. She can quickly assess the environment, seize the big picture, and then determine a strategy that will work. She creates a vision and a passion for community service. She empowers students.” Of the decade-long growth in community service, Carnaghi says it is “110 percent attributable to Stephanie.”

The credit Kurtzman gives students, though, doesn’t surprise her colleagues. “She is always student-focused,” says Amanda Moore McBride, director of the Gephardt Institute and assistant professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.

Students commit to service early on. For the pre-orientation Leadership Through Service program last fall, 30 students volunteered at Operation Food Search. (Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.)

Carnaghi agrees. “It’s never about her,” she says. “It’s always the students.”

Kurtzman structured the Community Service Office’s service projects to operate on two parallel tracks. On the first track, her office manages “signature programs,” such as Service First, the day-long project taking freshmen into city schools to spruce them up; Each One Teach One, a K–12 tutoring program; Social Change Grants, covering expenses and stipends for students developing innovative projects during summer break; campus-wide blood drives; and the Service Trip Coordinating Council, offering training, support, and networking for students planning community service trips in this country and abroad.

On the second track, her staff advises student organizations that seek out help. “It really lies with the students,” she explains. “Most of what we do is advising the student groups—Dance Marathon, Relay For Life, Feed St. Louis. We’re trying to support the student leadership, the growth, the collaboration among them.” There are, across campus, 57 such programs.

In Kurztman’s view, these student organizations are the core of community service. “Our signature programs are very important,” she says, “but the mainstay are the student groups.” WU student organizations are autonomous; they do not have to accept advising, and their willing collaboration with Kurtzman’s office is a measure of how much students value her help.

Her ability to help students put flesh on the bones of their ideas is one reason. Says McBride: “A student group might come to her, wanting to help a small town outside of New Orleans. She helps them brainstorm ways to leverage resources and collaborate with others. She helps them make it real.”

Kurtzman sees her job as “building infrastructure” to support these groups, whether it’s the nonprofit database, the office’s resource-rich Web site, the twice-weekly e-mail newsletter, or the Gephardt Institute’s two annual University-wide events showcasing civic engagement and service opportunities. A key new element is the WeCar Fund, providing money for students to use Enterprise Rent-a-Car’s car-sharing program to get to service locations. Another important effort, since her office integrated with the Gephardt Institute in 2006, has been connecting with the graduate and professional schools’ strong service programs.

Looking forward, she wants to continue this infrastructure-building process. She hopes to expand the Service Trip Coordinating Council’s work, to “keep growing service trips” until students see them as the norm for spring break. She hopes to build the Social Change Grant program. And she wants to expedite links between students and nonprofit agencies. “I want ‘Match.com’ for community service,” she says, enabling students to post specific interests and availability, and pertinent agencies to recruit them.

Kurtzman finds rich rewards in her work. “I get so much energy from the students,” she says. “The ability to tap into their passions is such a gift. I can feel that my work, which few people see, makes a difference: getting students into the community and deepening their commitment to serving the common good.”

Betsy Rogers is a freelance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.