by Virginia O’Donnell | April 13, 2023
When Sophie Lin, Class of 2026, visited the Missouri History Museum for the first time, the experience deepened her passion for the richness and complexity of St. Louis’ history. Her interest encompasses the city’s points of pride and the problematic patterns, such as systemic racism, that have shaped nearly all urban centers in the U.S.
“There’s so much here,” she says. “You have all this history that you can uncover. And it’s the city I’m going to be living in for four years or maybe more. Not doing this sort of exploration would be a loss for my experience and a loss for the city.”
Lin’s exploration began as part of the St. Louis Fellowship Program, a six-month immersive learning experience led by the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement. Around 30 students were chosen as St. Louis Fellows this year, and the program is poised to grow. Lin is the first who also is a WUpan Fellow, which means she receives funding from the Washington University Pride Alumni Network (WUpan), WashU’s LGBTQ alumni affinity group, to bolster her engagement with the university and St. Louis.
This summer, Lin will intern with PROMO, a local advocacy organization dedicated to confronting systemic inequities that affect LGBTQ individuals in Missouri. Through this opportunity, she hopes to build community and expand her professional network, while assessing whether she wants to pursue a career in this field.
Meanwhile, she and her St. Louis Fellowship Program cohort will deepen their understanding of the St. Louis region through educational programming led by Sarah Nash, the Gephardt Institute’s community engagement manager. Nash will facilitate excursions to Cahokia Mounds, The Ville, and other historic areas.
“This experience might cause [Sophie] to run kicking and screaming from LGBT advocacy, or it may cause her to be the next new Sophie Lin, doing something great and grand. Who knows?” says Lars Etzkorn, AB ’87, the founder of WUpan, an attorney in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Gephardt Institute National Council, who recently met Lin on a campus visit. “As an alumnus, that’s why you want to participate in any facet of this university—to have an effect on someone’s life.”
With this goal in mind, Etzkorn gradually has been steering WUpan toward deeper and more substantial student engagement. The decade-old alumni network initially launched as a social outlet, hosting gatherings for queer alumni in key markets like St. Louis, Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco.
Over time, it expanded its activities and investment in current students to include the WUpan Leadership Development Award, given annually to undergraduate and graduate student leaders who identify as LGBTQ or serve as active community allies. Recipients use the funds to deepen their co-curricular leadership in the LGBTQ advocacy space.
Iulia Tothezan, one of the 2022 Leadership Development Award Scholarship recipients and a master’s in social work candidate at the Brown School, used the scholarship funds to complete a social work practicum at the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. They served as a social work case manager, supporting survivors of domestic abuse.
Tothezan also advocated for more inclusive communications by drafting a memo about the benefits of pronoun inclusion policies in organizations that provide legal services. And they worked to improve operational efficiency by creating a systems map for the Orders of Protection in the St. Louis City court system, which was distributed to more than 100 community members. “I was incredibly honored to receive this special award and use the money to build up the St. Louis LGBTQIA+ community,” Tothezan says.
Together, these opportunities reflect WUpan’s significant role in helping the university live out its commitment to being in St. Louis, for St. Louis, and with St. Louis. “The notion that Washington University, with all its might, will build bonds with other organizations that perhaps don’t have the same amount of resources, and that Sophie, Iulia, and others will play a role in that, is really exciting,” Etzkorn says.
But the personal transformations in the lives of individual students are also a powerful benefit of these real-world learning opportunities. In the end, it’s the university’s potential to alter the course of students’ lives that motivates Etzkorn to keep exploring how WUpan can do more.
“I was so lucky to come to an institution like Washington University, where almost every day, there is something that affects my life that stems from my time on campus,” he says. For this reason, he encourages Lin, Tothezan, and the many other beneficiaries of WUpan to adopt a wide-open view of the future: “We have a richness of experience from attending WashU. I hope, in fact, you cannot predict today what your future will be like.” Lin is on board with this advice: “This is only the beginning,” she says. “I’m really excited.”