Stephanie Kurtzman knows a few things about volunteering. She also knows about olives. She can’t stand them.
Kurtzman, director of community service, spent two months after college graduation working on an Israeli kibbutz, a communal living environment. She studied Hebrew and worked on the assembly line in an olive factory.
“I hate olives!” Kurtzman said. “I didn’t like them before I went to Israel. Now I really hate them. I tell the students here that it was a very humbling experience. No one cared what I had done in college or what kind of honors I had received. It was all about whether I could pull the bad olives off the conveyor belt before they went into the jar.
“It was incredibly boring. Four hours is a long time to stand there and watch olives go by.”
She isn’t bored anymore.
Instead of picking out bad olives, Kurtzman works to connect students and staff with volunteer opportunities around the St. Louis area.
It’s a challenging job, but Kurtzman loves it.
“When I started here, I spent about 90 percent of my time with women’s programs,” Kurtzman recalled. “I did a lot of sexual assault prevention. I advised CORE and I was chair of the committee on sexual assault. But my charge was to build up the community service program. Jill (Carnaghi, Ph.D., director of campus life and assistant vice chancellor for students) wanted me to make it the focus and build the program.
“That was probably the scariest and most exciting thing I’ve ever heard in my life. And that’s what I’ve done ever since.”
She was recently named director of community service, replacing her old title of coordinator of community service and women’s programs.
Kurtzman was born in California. She attended Occidental College in Los Angeles where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1995. After returning from her post-graduation trip to Israel, Kurtzman was accepted to the University of Vermont for graduate studies in higher education and student affairs.
“I knew when I was an undergraduate that I wanted to be in student affairs,” she said. “The values jived for me and it made sense. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Well, I had fun in college so I’ll just keep doing that and get paid for it,’ which is a common misconception. I had been involved in residential life government, and I was really excited to work with students more closely.”
She graduated from Vermont in 1998 and started at WUSTL that June.
“It was very wonderful, but very hard,” Kurtzman said of her first “real” job. “It was a dream job, but as a new professional I felt fairly unequipped in women’s programs and community service. I had much more experience in residential life. I felt like I had a steep uphill climb ahead of me and I’ve just learned along the way.”
She’s had a lot of help.
Carnaghi, currently Kurtzman’s supervisor, was director of residential life during Kurtzman’s first year at Vermont. Carnaghi left Vermont to come to WUSTL, helped to hire Kurtzman, and the two have worked closely ever since.
“Having worked with and observed Stephanie as a graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs Program as well as a graduate assistant within the Department of Residential Life at the University of Vermont, I was thrilled to have the opportunity for us to work together again here at WUSTL,” Carnaghi said.
“I have come to value and appreciate her ability to think critically, function autonomously, foster collaborative relationships and assertively ask for what she thought was needed to perform more efficiently, particularly in times of crises.”
The first thing Kurtzman noticed when she started working on the charge to grow the community service program was the lack of a central location for all the information about volunteer opportunities on campus and in the community.
“There was a perception among students that the Campus Y was the only source for information on volunteering, and that if you didn’t find what you were looking for there, you were out of luck,” she said. “In reality there were a lot of opportunities, but there was no list of nonprofit agencies in St. Louis and no clearinghouse of available opportunities.”
Kurtzman has spent a lot of time collecting that information.
“Everywhere I went, I picked up information and compiled it in an online database,” she says. “It’s slow and humble work.”
She started the “Community Service Connection,” an e-mail newsletter, which began as a paper flier and now includes 2,400 people who receive frequent e-mails about various volunteer opportunities on campus and throughout the community.
Kurtzman was also responsible for starting Service First, an initiative that introduces first-year University students to community service in the St. Louis area. The annual fall event now includes more than 1,100 students, mostly newly arrived freshmen, who work to paint, clean, garden and renovate area schools for the upcoming year.
“Shortly after I arrived at WUSTL, we started talking about doing a large-scale service event with our new students,” Kurtzman said. “However, we had no clue what we were doing. All things being equal, it had a decent start, but it’s a miracle we got through that first and second year.”
The project began in 1999 with about 600 student volunteers helping to clean and beautify scenic trails. This original Service First event won national recognition as one of seven “Exemplary Practices and Model Programs” from the National Association of Campus Activities.
Title: Director of Community Service
For more information on volunteering, visit: communityservice.wustl.edu
To sign up for the “Community Service Connection” e-mail newsletter, e-mail: email@example.com.
“I’m very proud of Service First” Kurtzman said. “Every year it’s a love/hate relationship because it involves such an extensive planning process. Things don’t always come together perfectly, but I love it. We’ve figured out a lot of systems to make things easier all the way around. It’s hard work but it’s a true labor of love. The day after Service First is always a good day!”
She does a lot of planning and organization in her office, but the most important role Kurtzman has, she said, is serving as an adviser to students.
“It’s a real gift to be able to help students discover their passions and become active and contributing members of the community,” she says.
“They share some of their dreams with me and I learn so much from them every day.”
Kurtzman truly enjoys being part of the University community.
“I think WUSTL is a very collaborative environment,” she says. “It’s easy to get to know people from other departments and get involved in what other areas of campus are doing. The staff is greatly committed to the students, which is fabulous.
“This is a place where people when at all possible say ‘yes’. They don’t tell you it’s not in their job description or they don’t have time.”
Kurtzman is married to David Levy, a graduate of the School of Medicine’s Program in Occupational Therapy. He’s a certified hand therapist. The couple lives in Olivette, Mo., with their two golden retrievers, their “pride and joy.”
“We love our dogs,” Kurtzman said. “Kelsey is 8 and Fenway, whose name came with him, is 3. We have such fun playing with them.”
When she’s not chasing dogs around the house, Kurtzman loves to cook and try out new recipes.
She also enjoys spending time with her family, including her 10 nieces and nephews; serving on the board of directors for Lydia’s House, a transitional house for abused women and their children; and being active in her synagogue, Central Reform Congregation.
She completed a marathon with her father in June 2000, helping raise more than $5,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
She doesn’t run much anymore, however. She’s far too busy scouring the St. Louis area to locate the various ways all of us can pitch in to make a difference in the community.