Called to Serve?: Jump In (heart first) and Make Your Mark

By Danielle Breidung

Ms. Breidung graduated from Washington and Lee University in December 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Anthropology as well as minors in Poverty and Human Capability Studies and Environmental Studies. She has since worked as an international business consultant in the Brazilian Amazon, completed a Master of Education in International Higher Education at Loyola University Chicago, and served as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Danielle recently formed her second LLC, which is a consulting business specializing in program management, facilitation, and grant-writing for nonprofits.

"Although skills and knowledge were important, the character traits, particularly patience, gratitude, and compassion, that I refined within the poverty studies Program helped me build rapport with my colleagues and ultimately increase remote villages’ self-sufficiency," writes Danielle Breidung (W&L 2012).

“Although skills and knowledge were important, the character traits, particularly patience, gratitude, and compassion, that I refined within the poverty studies Program helped me build rapport with my colleagues and ultimately increase remote villages’ self-sufficiency,” writes Danielle Breidung (W&L 2012).


Before arriving at Washington and Lee University, I was only vaguely familiar with the idea that young people often “do” community service in order to make themselves more competitive applicants for selective colleges and universities. Growing up in Waunakee, Wisconsin: population 11,000, I learned to always help and respect my neighbors. In other words, “community service” was a way of life and certainly not an optional or self-serving endeavor. Participating in Washington and Lee University’s Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability not only helped me meet like-minded peers and faculty, but it also transformed my pre-existing values and interests into a fulfilling career path that continues to excite and challenge me.

My involvement with the Shepherd began even before Washington and Lee sent my acceptance letter. Prior to embarking on a campus visit, I became intrigued by this particular program’s course offerings. Fortunately, Dr. Beckley, the Director of Washington and Lee’s Shepherd Program at the time and now the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty’s Executive Director, was my student host’s advisor, and she graciously introduced me to him. After formally accepting my offer of admission, I immediately sought educational advice from the Shepherd Program, which continued for the remainder of my college years and helped me develop capabilities to promote positive social change.

My student host and Dr. Beckley both encouraged me to participate in Washington and Lee’s Volunteer Venture, a service-learning pre-orientation program. I chose to learn about the hardships facing West Virginians. This eye-opening and immersive experience was just the beginning of my involvement with the Program’s co-curricular offerings. In fact, my first work-study position was with the Campus Kitchen at Washington and Lee (CKWL). The following semester I joined the Bonner Scholars Program, and spent over 1,800 hours volunteering with CKWL as well as another student organization called English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). Based on my familiarity and involvement with these organizations, in 2010 I initiated “Lazos Más Fuertes,” a program which continues to provide the Rockbridge-area community with free, bilingual (Spanish and English) dinners as well as greater awareness of student-led tutoring and translation services.

My desire to connect English language learners with community resources influenced the coursework, internship, and co-curricular activities I pursued. For example, I began tutoring a man from El Salvador during my second semester, and continued working with him for years after the practicum course ended. Likewise, the internship I did with the Shepherd Program took place at Mujeres Latinas en Acción, a non-profit that connects Latinas with advocacy and social services. Most noteworthy, however, was the community-based research project I completed as part of the Poverty and Human Capability capstone course. Based on a request from the Rockbridge Area Relief Association, a community partner focused primarily on providing nutritious food, my task was to explore the reasons why so few Latino families were among the organization’s clients. After conducting interviews and organizing my findings, I presented four strategies for addressing the barriers limiting Latinos’ access to services. Before long, the organization noted positive results! Completing this project and making a positive impact on a real world, real-time scenario was one of the most meaningful aspects of my undergraduate education. In fact, the sense of fulfillment and purpose I derived from this experience has impacted my professional pursuits and involvement in civic organizations ever since.

Upon graduation I embarked on an entrepreneurial endeavor in the Brazilian Amazon that encompassed everything I studied at Washington and Lee: poverty and human capability, environmental studies, sociology, and anthropology. As the Director of Operations for a nutraceutical company, I was responsible for facilitating the purchase and transportation of a rare super-fruit called camu-camu from the Amazon to Florida. Although skills and knowledge were important, the character traits, particularly patience, gratitude, and compassion, that I refined within the poverty studies Program helped me build rapport with my colleagues and ultimately increase remote villages’ self-sufficiency.

Almost two years later I returned to the United States in hopes of gaining different professional experiences and finishing my graduate degree. Serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA helped me reconnect with domestic poverty relief efforts, and now as a consultant to nonprofit organizations, I cannot imagine doing anything other than contributing to the promotion of social justice within the context of both my professional and civic activities. In the future I hope to pursue a Ph.D. in social policy and to continue advocating for greater equality within and across borders. The experiences I had within the Shepherd Program had a remarkable impact on the person and professional I have become, and it pleases me a great deal that undergraduate students across the United States increasingly have access to the transformative learning and personal growth opportunities that this program offers.

#CampusKitchensProject #RockbridgeAreaReliefAssociation