Washington People: Amanda Pope

Leading with grace

Amanda Pope embodies the mission of Washington University and considers it her job to care for its employees. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who embodies the mission of Washington University in St. Louis better than Amanda Pope. She has a genuine concern for the people of the university and the development of leaders on campus. The care of patients is very important to her as well.

She has had direct contact with the university’s workforce as director of human resources communications and employee engagement. Pope takes that responsibility seriously, saying it’s her job to care for WashU employees. And now, she has stepped up to a new role: special adviser to Shantay Bolton, executive vice chancellor for administration and chief administrative officer, effective Feb. 1.

Pope’s experience as both an employee and a patient of the university takes her commitment to another level.

‘I just really have a special place in my heart for WashU because of what they do for people like me.’

Amanda Pope

“I just really have a special place in my heart for WashU because of what they do for people like me,” Pope said.

Almost 12 years ago, Pope was in her mid-20s, thriving and working in a marketing position at Saint Louis University. As she was pursuing her master’s in business administration and preparing to study abroad in Madrid, she realized something was off with her health.

After a blood test, she was rushed to the emergency room and discovered that she was severely anemic. Later, additional tests revealed that she had leukemia, and she began treatment at Siteman Cancer Center.

“I dealt with a lot of health challenges, every ailment you can imagine,” Pope recalled. “It was really scary to have your life in front of you, but have that jeopardized at a young age.”

She went through several rounds of chemotherapy while waiting on a bone marrow transplant. No one in her family was a match.

The doctors, clinicians and the staff at Siteman became her extended family during that time. Even on her most difficult days, she was able to make personal connections with her providers.

“They are really a gift in your life because they are helping you through one of the hardest things you’ll ever face,” Pope said. “I have a lot of different touch points at the university personally and professionally through that experience.”

She was hospitalized for six months until a transplant match was found in Europe through the international bone marrow registry.

From suffering to survivorship

The day of Pope’s bone marrow transplant was a momentous occasion. Remarkably, she mustered the strength to put on a wig and a fancy outfit. She refers to that day as her “rebirth day.”

Her entire family was there to support her on July 20, 2010, which proved to be a life-changing day for them as well.

“My mother lived next to me in the hospital room for all six months,” Pope said. “She always believed that I would survive and was very strong in prayer with me. We would walk the halls every single day in the hospital. I carry that with me — I know she does — because I think that when you have family there to support you, that is a key in survival.”

The process of recovery after cancer treatment is not easy. She still sees the health-care team at WashU to monitor and manage her health. Pope’s commitment to helping others live a full life motivates her to keep pushing forward. Today, she serves as a public speaker for Siteman Cancer Center and is a Marrow Mate, supporting other patients going through a similar journey.

Her sister, Justine Zehnle, also a university employee, takes pride in Pope’s ability to keep going despite the obstacles she has had to overcome.

“Amanda approaches everything she faces with courage and grace,” said Zehnle, a marketing and digital communications specialist in alumni relations. “Even in her darkest times of leukemia and transplant, Amanda never lost faith or her smile.”

Pope speaks to an audience during Staff Day in May 2018. (Photo: Mary Butkus/Washington University)

A people person at heart

The oldest of two girls, Pope always has been an ambitious person. Her father is an architect and her mother worked at a newspaper. From a young age, she combined the skills and values she learned related to creativity, writing, hard work and care for others. She served as editor of her high school’s yearbook and was involved in many organizations. 

Pope attended the University of Missouri-Columbia as a journalism major. After working as a Missouri Press Foundation intern at a local newspaper, she shifted her focus from broadcast journalism to a more multifaceted career. 

“People were always at the heart of what I did,” Pope said. “I find that the link between people, communications and engagement is a good mix of my passion and also my skills to work with others.” 

After working at Saint Louis University for some time, she started her own consulting company during a brief stint in Philadelphia. While working with various corporations and startups, she felt the pull to return to the mission of higher education. After her experience as a cancer survivor, she knew she wanted to work for WashU in some capacity and give back to the university that had given her a second chance at life. She applied to join the Office of Human Resources, was offered the position and began her career here in 2014. 

A champion for employees

After one conversation with Pope, it is clear why she is among the prominent leaders at the university. Even during the era of Zoom calls, her love for the university’s people and its mission jumps through the screen.

“Amanda is one the most endearing and compassionate people I know,” said Katy Henke, human resources communications specialist. “After my interview, I knew I wanted to work for her — she actually cried on my Zoom interview, so it was easy to tell how passionate she is from before day one. As a leader, manager and colleague, she truly understands work-life integration and helping WashU employees thrive professionally and personally.”

In her role at the university, Pope is constantly looking to return the care she received as a patient to those who work at WashU. Her consideration for others shines through, especially during this time of uncertainty.

She and her team have supported employees with wellness and well-being programs tailored to their needs. These efforts have not gone unnoticed: Forbes ranked the university the top employer in Missouri in 2021.

“I think we’re seeing now, more than we did before, how much we need to build that strength from the inside out, that’s how we help others best,” Pope said. “I know that will continue. I’ve seen so much hope arise from the leadership and all of us working together and leaning in to support people.”

Hope for the future

Since going through what she calls a “personal pandemic” during her time in the hospital, Pope is able to empathize with others navigating isolation and fear for the first time.

She credits her perseverance to her faith in God and her ability to let go of what she cannot control. She is intentional about beginning each day with prayer and meditation so that she can pour into others.

“That’s why, during the pandemic, it was such a passion of mine to partner with our mental health professionals, our faculty, the HR staff and our leadership to think about how do we take care of the people that are on the front lines, or even in any arm of our business, because I know how much they’re carrying every day.”

Pope encourages everyone at the university, including leaders, to take a moment to care for themselves while continuing to care for others.

She finds peace in nature, specifically at the Missouri Botanical Garden. The captivating landscape is a far cry from the walls of her hospital room. Her ability for introspection allows her to appreciate the opportunities she has and to treasure everyday moments.

“Amanda is a reminder that we all have struggles that are not always easy to see from the outside,” said Rebecca L. Brown, vice chancellor and chief of staff for Chancellor Andrew Martin. “But even more, she is a reminder of how each of us can take what we’ve walked through, good or bad, and apply what we’ve learned in a way that improves the community and everyone around us. We all have this within us, and I am grateful Amanda is here to remind us of that.”

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