Gephardt News

Meet St. Louis Organizers Connect First-Year Students with Local Communities

For the past four years, Meet St. Louis has provided first-year students with the opportunity to discover, engage, and reflect on community development efforts and service opportunities in St. Louis through a variety of small group excursions throughout the city. Led by faculty, staff, and student group leaders who have a specific and deep connection with local issues and neighborhoods, these excursions are the beginning of a meaningful conversation for new WashU students about what it means to be an engaged member of the St. Louis community. Often students’ first point of contact with the Gephardt Institute and first entry into the St. Louis community beyond campus, Meet St. Louis aims to spark meaningful reflection on what students hope their time in St. Louis will hold and how they wish to relate to their new city. This year, the program included 19 excursions, over 35 trip organizers, and 171 student participants. Excursions focused on a wide range of topics, including the politics of public education, the local sustainable food movement, and societal systems that reinforce hunger and homelessness.

To prepare for the excursions, the institute hosted an event the week prior called “Meet St. Louis: an Intro.” Bob Hansman, associate Professor in the Sam Fox School and Faculty Community Engagement Fellow at the Gephardt Institute, addressed over twenty attendees, sharing his own story of community engagement to inspire participants to consider what it means to be a WashU student in St. Louis and how their Meet St. Louis experiences might connect to these narratives. The evening after excursions took place, participants were invited to a dinner for the opportunity to debrief and hear from other students and excursion leaders.

Gephardt Institute student staff member Mindy Bernstein ’20 was this year’s Meet St. Louis Coordinator. As a first-year student, Mindy participated in Meet St. Louis herself. She transitioned into her role as coordinator at the beginning of this year, hopeful but unsure of what to expect. About her position, Mindy said, “This role is unique in terms of how it is organized and the wide variety of people that are involved.” Throughout the spring and beginning of the summer, her main focus was on recruitment for trip organizers. Among the trip organizers for the 19 excursions, 10 undergraduate student groups were represented as well as staff and student representatives from nine different offices and departments on campus, and one faculty member. “One of my favorite parts about this role,” Mindy said, “is how many incredible people I have been able to get to know before we even opened sign ups to students. I have seen how this program has not only impacted the first-year student participants but also the leaders involved through training opportunities and their experiences as trip organizers.”

Excursion organizers agreed that the experience was a rewarding one, as noted in this snapshot of their reflections:

Excursion: Engaging St. Louis: A Beat Therapy Visit to Kingdom House
Trip Organizers: Emma Kintisch ’19 and Emma Zastrow ’20, Beat Therapy
Trip Overview: Beat Therapy WashU, a music-based community service group, took a trip to Kingdom House, a non-profit organization that works to empower economically-disadvantaged individuals and families in the area. On the excursion, students participated in hands-on volunteer work, received a tour of the facilities, and had the opportunity to ask a staff member questions about Kingdom House’s programs. The exploration of St. Louis continued with lunch in Lafayette Park. 

“Participating in Meet St. Louis was an incredible way to raise awareness about the work we do at Beat Therapy while making an impactful difference in the St. Louis community. Beyond the benefits to our partners at Kingdom House, we were also able to make early contact with passionate first-year students and show them just one of the many ways they can get engaged at WashU.” —Emma Kintisch ’19

Excursion: A Backstage Pass to Theater in St. Louis
Trip Organizer: Robert Mark Morgan, Scenic, Production, Museum, and Industrial Designer and Teaching Professor
Trip Overview: Participants enjoyed a guided tour by Robert Mark Morgan to several St. Louis theater institutions. The excursion included a backstage tour of the historic Fox Theater and a tour of the Muny 100th Anniversary exhibit at the St. Louis History Museum. Following the tours, participants heard from Performing Arts faculty member and director Anna Pileggi about her class Theater for Social Change.

“Meet St. Louis gave me an opportunity to interact with brand new WashU students in a unique way. With shared interests already established, my group and I could spend the day getting out of the WashU bubble and into the St. Louis community.” —Robert Mark Morgan

Excursion: Urban Farming: Sowing the Seeds of a Brighter St. Louis
Trip Organizer: Matt DeVoll, Assistant Dean, College of Arts & Sciences
Trip Overview: Participants learned to navigate Metro transit on their way to an urban farm run by Good Life Growing, “a community-based organization that is focused on combating urban decay and food insecurity in North St. Louis.” At the farm, participants had the opportunity to volunteer while learning more about their new city, urban farming, and other ways to get involved in sustainability.

“The day of urban farming in North St. Louis was an amazing experience for the students and me. We all got our hands dirty and learned first-hand not just about the problems of food deserts in their new city but also about innovative solutions and the hardworking and creative people in St. Louis making a difference.” —Matt DeVoll

Excursion: In the Shadow of the Arch: Cultural Landscapes in Downtown STL
Trip Organizer: Amy Miller, Assistant Educator, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum
Trip Overview: How do cities tell stories? In what ways do public art, architecture, and design construct and communicate civic identity and memory? In this excursion, students traveled to downtown St. Louis and discussed the history and impact of the recently renovated Gateway Arch, explored Citygarden and Serra Sculpture Park, and read other aspects of the urban landscape along the way. In conversations with Michael Allen, director and architectural historian at the Preservation Research Office, students dug into the complicated history of the built environment and considered its implications for residents in the present.

“The most rewarding thing about leading Meet St. Louis trips these past three years has been working closely with first-year students. Their energy and curiosity are infectious—hearing their observations and ideas helps me experience my own city from a fresh perspective. Meet St. Louis and programs like it are incredibly valuable because they provide new students with a way to meaningfully engage with the city during their first weeks on campus. The students I worked with came away from our excursion with not only a deeper understanding of the complex and contested history of the Gateway Arch but also a better sense of how to use the Metro and an increased comfort level navigating the city on their own. I wish Meet St. Louis had existed when I was a first-year student ten years ago!” —Amy Miller