Alumni create socially conscious fellowship program

Acting on a strong commitment to social justice forged as students in the late 1960s, Washington University alumni are giving back to their campus community by establishing a fellowship program for graduate students willing to tackle St. Louis’ toughest urban social problems.

Husband and wife alumni Louise Veninga and Ben Zaricor, together with alumnus George Zimmer and his wife, Lorri, have made a combined gift of $750,000 to create “Birds of Passage: The Zimmer and Veninga-Zaricor Fellows.” The fellowship will reside in the American Culture Studies Program in Arts & Sciences.

Part of a larger effort to expand American culture and urban studies at WUSTL, the Birds of Passage program will strengthen University ties with the St. Louis region while providing field experience for socially conscious graduate students.

“This is a gift given truly from the heart,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said in announcing the gift. “Louise, Ben, George and Lorri share a vision that is fueled by passion and genuine commitment to Washington University and to St. Louis. How fortunate we are to be the recipients of such remarkable and creative generosity, for which we are truly grateful.”

The fellows program begins at a time when the University and particularly Arts & Sciences are reinvigorating their academic commitment to applied social sciences and urban studies.

“The gift fits in perfectly with Arts & Sciences’ current focus to strengthen and expand the American culture and urban studies programs,” said Ralph S. Quatrano, Ph.D., interim dean of Arts & Sciences and the Spencer T. Olin Professor in Arts & Sciences. “This renewed emphasis, coupled with the University’s ongoing plan to increase multidisciplinary efforts within Arts & Sciences and across the schools, creates an amazing learning opportunity for graduate students.”

“The Birds of Passage Fellowship adds a strong component to the undergraduate and graduate programs of American culture studies, which emphasizes engaged study, often through community involvement,” said Randall L. Calvert, Ph.D., director of the program and the Thomas F. Eagleton University Professor in Arts & Sciences.

Calvert is pleased that the first recipient is Suzanne Pritzker, a doctoral candidate in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.

“Suzanne is an ideal inaugural fellow,” Calvert said. “The award both complements and contributes to her research on civic development among youth, focusing on locally based service learning opportunities. We are pleased that it will effectively promote her professional development as a researcher and teacher while offering such a valuable learning opportunity to our undergraduate students.”

Not to be overlooked is the gift the Zimmers, Veninga and Zaricor are giving to St. Louis, their “home away from home” while matriculating at WUSTL. Wayne Fields, Ph.D., the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Chair in English and the former director of American culture studies, who has known some of the donors for more than three decades, explained their motivation to support this program:

“They came of age during the civil unrest of the Sixties, and they feel a responsibility to contribute solutions to pressing social challenges,” Fields said. “At the same time, they recognize the unique ability of a great university to address these issues, not the least of which is a steady influx of socially conscious young men and women, now and in the future, who have a passionate wish to put their ideas to the test for the good of society.”

The three alumni have left their mark in the business world. George Zimmer is the founder and chief executive officer of Men’s Wearhouse, the largest retailer of men’s tailored suits and dress casual clothing in the United States and Canada. He opened the first store in 1973, three years after graduating from WUSTL with a bachelor’s degree in economics in Arts & Sciences. He now presides over 1,200 stores producing $2.1 billion in sales annually.

His personal commitment to social responsibility is reflected in his corporate philosophy supporting charitable contributions and encouraging volunteerism. In 1992, he established the Zimmer Foundation to provide scholarships for employees and their families. His firm has made “Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For” for the past several years.

A generous donor to Arts & Sciences, Zimmer has provided scholarships for more than a decade.

Ben Zaricor (A.B. sociology 1970) and Louise Veninga (M.A. urban studies ’72) developed a business in the herb, spice and tea trade with their pioneer trade work with China after President Richard Nixon’s initiative to open relations with China in 1971. They created a company after moving to Santa Cruz, Calif., named Fmali that sourced, processed and supplied their products to major food and beverage companies in the United States and Europe for more than three decades. They also are authors and publishers of two books: “The Ginseng Book” and “Goldenseal Etc.”

Veninga and Zaricor co-founded the various trade associations for herbs and supplements and developed many of what today are industry standards for the use of botanicals in the United States.

Veninga and Zaricor also developed a national tea brand, Good Earth Teas, which was sold to Tetley Tea Group/Tata Tea Group in 2005. They retain the rights to the Good Earth Restaurants, a pioneer in the fresh natural foods restaurant category for 40 years.

Veninga and Zaricor have been recognized for their unique collection of historical flags, especially their American collection that has been recognized as a national treasure by historians as it contains some of the most historic surviving American flags. A book and PBS documentary have been produced about their collection under the title “The American Flag: Two Centuries of Concord & Conflict.”

The PBS film and book feature Fields and Henry Berger, Ph.D., professor emeritus of history in Arts & Sciences, plus alumnus and Hollywood filmmaker Harold Ramis and documentarian Phillip Koch.

Fields chairs a committee of faculty and community leaders that select future Birds of Passage Fellows.

For information on the fellowship program and submissions, contact American culture studies at 935-5216.

Pritzker named first ‘Birds of Passage’ fellow

Suzanne Pritzker, a doctoral student in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, is the first recipient of a one-year research and teaching fellowship from the “Birds of Passage: The Zimmer and Veninga-Zaricor Fellows” program.

As part of the fellowship, Pritzker is teaching an innovative 2009 spring semester undergraduate course on “Citizenship and Public Service.” The course, which she developed, examines historic and modern views of what it means to be a citizen in a democratic country, and whether citizens have an obligation to participate in civic life and engage in public service.

Students are expected to participate each week in at least three hours of community service as part of individual, semester-long service-learning experiences coordinated by WUSTL’s Gephardt Institute for Public Service. Students will be encouraged to draw on these experiences as the class explores ways to increase citizen involvement in American civic life.

Pritzker earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in education from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Before pursuing social work education, she spent several years working with state governmental agencies, including as a policy adviser in the Office of the Virginia Secretary of Education and as an analyst for a Virginia General Assembly joint legislative commission.

Pritzker’s doctoral work has been supported by a Mr. and Mrs. Spencer T. Olin Fellowship for Women in Graduate Studies. As a student in the American culture studies graduate certificate program, she has undertaken interdisciplinary course work supported by WUSTL’s Lynne Cooper Harvey Fellowship program.

She is interested in the development of youth as political actors. She conducts research on civic engagement, youth development, social policy and the efficacy of service-learning as a civic intervention for adolescents.

During the 2008 election, Pritzker led a survey of WUSTL students’ political views and participation as part of a Gephardt Institute study. Her co-researchers include Melanie Springer, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science in Arts & Sciences, and Amanda Moore McBride, Ph.D., director of the Gephardt Institute and assistant professor of social work.

Her dissertation research, funded by the Ford Foundation through a grant to the Brown School’s Center for Social Development, is titled “Understanding Political Involvement Among Disadvantaged Adolescents.” She expects to earn a doctoral degree in social work in May 2009.

— Gerry Everding