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Poverty Studies Can Transform Institutions as Well as Students

Victoria Kumpuris Brown, Senior Program Officer, joined the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation staff in 2015, bringing her exceptional experience in connecting business and healthcare to the battle against childhood obesity. Brown’s track record of mobilizing the business community around social imperatives began with her previous position as the Vice President for Strategic Alliances at the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded by the Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association. She led the Alliance’s work with the food, beverage, and healthcare industries, helping them become part of the obesity solution through the facilitation of commitments to business practice changes that create healthier environments for children and families. Before joining the Alliance, Brown spent over a decade working in the public, private, and academic sectors on issues impacting families and communities.

Brown holds a Master of Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and a B.A. in public policy from Washington and Lee University.

"The Shepherd Program has proven to not only transform individuals, but has also transformed the student body it serves."

“The Shepherd Program has proven to not only transform individuals, but has also transformed the student body it serves.”

In the fall of 1994, I arrived in Lexington, Virginia full of excitement and not just a little angst about what my college years would bring. Washington and Lee both mirrored and was completely opposite of my upbringing in Little Rock, Arkansas. While I grew up with a family who supported me wholeheartedly financially and emotionally at every turn, I was a graduate of public schools (including the nationally known Central High School) where I was the racial and ethnic minority for most of my schooling and was exposed to diversity, poverty and adversity from my earliest days as a student. Fate took good care of me as I was assigned Harlan Beckley as my freshman year advisor. Not many of these relationships end up with your advisor and his family attending your wedding but, to say the least this “match” was one I will always be grateful for.

My advisors guided me when I struggled with navigating a student body that was very unlike the one I graduated from. While I was very comfortable in so many ways; I struggled with the privilege around me and my own and how disconnected it felt from academic pursuits. What was the ethical and moral responsibility of such a fortunate student body to both give back to their community but also more deeply understand their obligation to serve others given all the benefits their education and station afforded them? In an unusually brave moment, I wrote a letter to the leadership of the university framing my concerns and calling for a more entrenched community service program for students. Harlan Beckley and others championed my letter and my dawning observations and invited me to become a committee member for a new program they were forming which later became the Shepherd Program at Washington and Lee and then the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty.

Suffice it to say, I was far from the best student at Washington and Lee. I remain grateful for Harlan Beckley and others taking that risks as my involvement with the Shepherd Program while, then only in its infancy, has had a lasting impact on my life. I have spent my career serving others via the public, private or non-profit sectors. I am now in philanthropy and have the unreal job of giving money to causes and strategies to transform lives and communities. I could not have imagined I would end up here but, I know that being listened to and encouraged during the development of poverty studies at Washington and Lee and having the exposure to the new poverty studies curriculum got me on my way to finding my life’s work.

The Shepherd Program has proven to not only transform individuals but, has also transformed the student body it serves. I now come back to Lexington to find a more engaged group of young people who are directly grappling with the world’s complexities and what their obligation is to make things better. While I have always been proud to call myself a General (Washington and Lee’s mascot), this new spirit has only deepened my connection to the school. I also believe the Program attracts higher caliber student to Washington and Lee. What was at one time a niche set of course offerings for a small group of students has evolved into a robust program and unique point of differentiation for my alma mater. I can easily imagine that similar developments are occurring at other Shepherd Consortium member schools.

As I reflect back, I am so grateful that when I began to grapple with one of life’s big questions – what is poverty and what is our responsibility to address it –I had teachers who guided me, an intellectual framework to support mem and an institution that championed asking these questions. This is liberal arts education at its best.


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