Bridging Campus & Community: Fostering Connections between Washington University and St. Louis

Stephanie Kutzman and Cara Johnson, Washington University in St. Louis, Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement

May 30, 2017

The name Washington University in St. Louis broadcasts that our location in the heart of St. Louis, Missouri is a central component of our university's identity - the campus literally forms a bridge across St. Louis City and County. Our hope is that this name serves as a beacon for students to become active citizens of St. Louis and provides an ongoing invitation into regional civic and community engagement.

WashU, as we’re more commonly referred to, enrolls 14,385 students from over 80 countries and all 50 states. Over 90% of undergraduate students are from out of state, with nearly 65% from more than 500 miles away (Washington University Facts). To become a citizen or engaged community member in St. Louis can seem like a foreign concept to many who have selected WashU based on rigorous academics or reputation rather than location. The Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement sees it as our role to help students understand what it means to be a member of the community they will call home during their time at WashU.

The Gephardt Institute’s mission is to cultivate informed and actively engaged citizens, including students, faculty, staff, and alumni who are inspired and prepared to serve, lead, and work with local communities to effect positive change.

The Gephardt Institute’s director Stephanie Kurtzman reflected, “We don’t want to reduce civic engagement to just voting or volunteering. It is so many things. It’s learning about the world around you. It’s understanding that there are many ways to make your community stronger, and that, as a citizen, you have a voice in that” (The Source, August 2015). We want to respond to the monumental challenges in society by preparing our students to be civic leaders, to listen to one another and dialogue across difference, and to discover their own form of civic engagement- be it service, careers, philanthropy, advocacy, or a civic-minded lifestyle. As our understanding of our mission and campus charge has evolved, and as we have listened to the priorities surfaced by partnering community organizations, we have undertaken several programmatic changes to offer more effective forms of service and community engagement.

One of the most public examples of how we have transformed our approach occurred three years ago, when we discontinued a program called “Service First” for first year students, and developed a program called “Meet St. Louis” as an entry point for students to get to know the region through unique neighborhood excursions. During Meet St. Louis, students learn about local organizations, take public transportation, and build relationships through discussion and reflection with community members and peers.

The original Service First program would load students, paint, supplies, and garden equipment onto school buses and drop hundreds of eager WashU students off at various schools over Labor Day weekend to volunteer. Students worked alongside other dorm residents to hang bulletin boards, organize libraries, clean, garden, and paint fences as a free service to public schools.

There were many challenges with this approach to engaging students in community service. Students had no context to understand the schools where they were working, and school representatives were seldom present. While students built relationships with each other, they missed an opportunity to connect with local community members or learn about the education system. Due to the size of the program, the service provided was often topical, lacking sustained impact.

Through a series of stakeholder meetings, the Gephardt Institute redesigned the program to first introduce students to their new home before asking them to provide service. “The goal is to learn about St. Louis through conversations with members of the community,” explained Lucy Chin, a student coordinator for the program. “I hope students walk away with more questions than answers, and that they are motivated to attend a seminar or join a student group or just spend more time in St. Louis.” Meet St. Louis begins with education, listening, reflection, and relationship development as the foundation for future community engagement. From there, the Gephardt Institute is able to help students navigate opportunities to bridge from campus to the community and find a unique pathway into ongoing civic and community engagement that aligns with their personal values.


  • Stephanie Kurtzman, Peter Sortino Director of the Gephardt Institute, Washington University in St. Louis, the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement
  • Cara Johnson, Assistant Director for Student Engagement and Service, Washington University in St. Louis, the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement

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