Gephardt News

Engage STL Launches First-Year Students on Path to Civic Engagement

With the redesign of the Bear Beginnings new student orientation program, incoming first-year students have a new opportunity to get to know St. Louis and build community around shared interests through three-day Immersive Experiences. Under the new model, all first-year students will be required to participate in an Immersive Experience within the 9-day Bear Beginnings program, and may choose from four unique options.

In partnership with the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of Sustainability, the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement will offer Engage STL. This exciting new Immersive Experience will center on the topics of community engagement; environmental sustainability; and diversity, equity, and inclusion. During Engage STL, an estimated 250 to 300 students will build relationships, visit neighborhoods, learn from community leaders and faculty, participate in community immersions, and volunteer with local organizations. Engage STL aims to equip first-year students to find their place at Washington University and within the greater St. Louis area while building a community rooted in shared values.

Student Engagement Coordinator Colleen Smyth is spearheading the planning and implementation of this program in partnership with Cassie Hage from the Office of Sustainability and Melanie Houston from the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. “During Engage STL, students will get the opportunity to hear about some of the assets and challenges of the region, consider the impact they make on the community and the environment, and see themselves as part of St. Louis,” Colleen says. “This is a great opportunity for first-year students to connect with the broader St. Louis community and to learn about ways to get involved during their four years at WashU.”

Lizzi Kehoe and Charlie Moss are student staff members at the Gephardt Institute and serve as Community Assistants for Engage STL. In this role, they are responsible for working alongside professional staff members to organize and oversee the three-day program. Meet Lizzi and Charlie below!

Lizzi, class of 2020, is majoring in women, gender, and sexuality studies with minors in Spanish and environmental studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. Charlie, class of 2020, is majoring in finance with minors in the business of social impact and legal studies in Olin Business School.

What is your favorite part of your role?

Lizzi Kehoe (LK): Getting to work with Colleen Smyth, my supervisor, and Charlie Moss, my co-Community Assistant, as well as Cassie Hage and Melanie Houston. It’s rewarding to see our varying perspectives and strengths come together. I’m also really excited to work with our BEAR Leaders* and see how this program develops and improves in the future.

Charlie Moss (CM): I love the ability to shape a program that I would have wanted to partake in as an incoming student. As a high schooler, I wasn’t able to articulate my passions having to do with race, impact, and community, but I’m ecstatic at the opportunity to ignite that same light in others. I also love working with other passionate individuals on our team because they show me that there truly are people out there who push their dreams forward every day.

What advice would you give to first-year students?

LK: Community comes in a lot of different forms, and if you don’t find the community you’re looking for or feel comfortable in during your first semester, that’s okay. It’s normal and there is time to find that community. Also, I’d encourage first-years to take advantage of the resources WashU offers, but to remember to look outside of WashU, too, to the St. Louis community for the resources it can provide.

CM: Take WashU and St. Louis one step at a time. There’s a lot to do and be a part of in both communities, but align with who you are first before you try to take on larger commitments.

Why is the Engage STL program important for first-year students?

LK: Engage STL is an opportunity for first-year students to begin reflecting on their identities and their roles as WashU students, which can bring awareness that should inform all of the work a person chooses to do at WashU and in St. Louis. The program also sets up first-year students to engage with communities—in St. Louis, at WashU, and elsewhere—in a sustainable, mutually beneficial way.

CM: Engage STL is important to first-year students because it highlights very real social problems that, while being on a fancy college campus, you usually feel quite removed from. These problems don’t go away just because we aren’t thinking about them.

What motivates you to be civically engaged?

LK: In one word, empathy. By being civically engaged, I learn both from and about those I engage with, which is rewarding in and of itself, but I also gain more self-awareness. Civic engagement has helped me better understand how to listen to and learn from those with different identities and experiences than mine and how to best use my varying levels of privilege in response. I think this gives way to more empathy among us all.

CM: I just think about where I am, and about the things that had to fall exactly in place for me to make it to WashU. Yes, some of it was hard work, but most of it was beating the odds. Not everyone is set up to beat the odds. I just think, “what can I do?”

What’s your favorite thing about living in St. Louis?

LK: Getting to learn more about St. Louis daily and then being able to draw connections to my hometown of New Orleans, LA. I’m a big fan of having Forest Park in my backyard, too!

CM: I’ve learned more from St. Louis than anywhere else I’ve lived. I’m a military brat, but the culture and history here has shown me more about the world than any fancy European town. It’s motivated me in a way I can’t seem to turn off. That’s why I’m working here!

Learn more about Engage STL here.

*Building Experience and Relationships (BEAR) Leaders are full-time undergraduate students who support the Bear Beginnings orientation program by leading 15-18 first-year students through one of four themes during the three-day Immersive Experience Program. They will also assist in the implementation of evening programs and events during Bear Beginnings.