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Higher Education Thought Leadership

Emory student lauded for stellar service across campus and community

From organizing service opportunities through Volunteer Emory to helping fight food insecurity on campus and beyond, 2021 Emory graduate Genevieve Wilson embodies the kind of student leader the university’s Brittain Award honors.

In an academic year in which the pandemic completely upended the extracurricular routines of campus life, Genevieve Wilson found novel ways to continue to enlist in service and allow her fellow Emory students to do the same.

But it’s really Wilson’s indelible imprint on Volunteer Emory, the work she has undertaken to provide food to those in need and her prodigious volunteer service across campus, that led to her receiving the undergraduate 2021 Marion Luther Brittain Award, Emory’s highest student honor, at the university’s May 16 Commencement.

As director of weekly service trips for Volunteer Emory, Wilson and her team coordinated some 20 to 30 service trips each week before the Emory campus shut down in March 2020. When school reopened in the fall and the pandemic continued to make traditional service outings impossible, Wilson organized virtual service trips.

“The transition was certainly challenging, but our team got creative,” she says. “It was generally easier where some technology infrastructure was already in place, and some of our first opportunities used that to provide virtual tutoring for local students.”

Other virtual service opportunities involved letter writing to patients and residents in assisted living and nursing homes and working with national park officials to create educational materials for visitors.

Margaux Cowden, director of the Woodruff Scholars Program, nominated Wilson for the award. “Genevieve has gravitated to roles that involve significant amounts of work and relatively little fanfare,” Cowden says. “She has concentrated on strengthening infrastructure and developing leadership among her peers in order to enhance the impact and value of established organizations at Emory.”

Wilson’s other significant volunteer roles revolve around food justice and insecurity.

A neuroscience major and nutrition minor, Wilson grew up in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and became fascinated by the brain as an eighth grader. “The intricacies of brain development rely heavily on proper nutrition,” she says. “And not having access to whole, nutritious foods is really a major disadvantage in terms of short- and long-term health outcomes.”

So, it was difficult for Wilson as a first-year student to contemplate the amount of food that went to waste in Emory’s dining halls. But in her first semester here, she discovered the Emory chapter of Campus Kitchens, a nationwide effort to divert potentially wasted food from college and university cafeterias to people in need.

The Emory chapter was sorely in need of volunteers. However, a food justice–themed alternative spring break trip inspired Wilson to change the chapter’s approach to volunteer recruitment.

“She focused on building coalitions with other social justice and service organizations at Emory and recruiting new volunteers through the personal connections these partnerships fostered,” Cowden wrote in her nomination letter.

Wilson’s initiatives grew Emory Campus Kitchens’ membership by more than 50 percent. The group eventually broke ties with the national organization and created the independent Emory Food Chain.

“They had specific protocols for food distribution and what types of food were acceptable,” Wilson explains. “Breaking with Campus Kitchens let us accept and distribute more of this food to the community.”

Last summer, in the early throes of the pandemic, Wilson began another food initiative. “When all of these programs were being shut down because people were quarantining, we felt there were a lot of unmet needs,” she says. So, she and her co-founder walked Atlanta neighborhoods designated as food deserts and talked to residents about what they needed.

The residents told them they wanted a farmers’ market. Wilson and her partner then created Rice, Beans and Southern Greens, an organization that works with regional farmers to increase access to fresh produce. They were given permission to set up shop outside the local corner store, the one place many community members frequented. Wilson has since inspired a host of Emory students and others to volunteer with her new organization.

All of this is in addition to serving as president of the Emory Undergraduate Neuroscience Association and working multiple part-time jobs. After she could no longer volunteer at Grady Memorial Hospital, Wilson took a course over 11 weekends at the Atlanta Career Institute to become a nursing assistant and now works at Emory University Hospital three times a month.

Following graduation, Wilson is stepping into a job as a clinical research coordinator for patients enrolled in clinical trials focused on neuromuscular and neurological diseases at the research center where she’s interned and worked since last September. She plans to work for about a year before enrolling in medical school with the goal of becoming a neurologist.

Where did she find the time to do all this and so much more?

“Coming to Emory and constantly focusing on myself and my studies — my future career — didn’t feel entirely meaningful on its own,” Wilson says. “Being able to pursue my interests that significantly benefited other people really elevated my experience at Emory and became one of my top priorities.”

Wilson represents just the kind of student leader the Brittain Award was established for, one who gives “significant, meritorious, and devoted service” to Emory but who also leaves the campus greatly changed by their presence here.

 

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