Bethann Pflugeisen describes her college major, community studies, as being about “social change with a practical component.” Given that, it’s maybe not surprising that she recently received the “Person Who Makes a Difference Award” from the Yakima Valley GEAR UP project.
Pflugeisen, the outreach program manager for the UW GEAR UP project, has been trying to make a difference ever since she picked up her degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz and came to Seattle looking for a job.
“I knew I wanted to do something to help people,” she says. “I believe in college and I believe in young people. I also believe that opportunities aren’t necessarily made available equally. So GEAR UP was a good fit for me.”
GEAR UP is a national program designed to expose disadvantaged students in middle and high school to college life, in hopes that the experience will encourage them to pursue a college education when they’re older. There are 11 GEAR UP grants at various locations in Washington; the UW program exists to serve the others. Pflugeisen is one of the liaisons between the campus and the other locations.
During the course of her work she met Matthew Carlson, the GEAR UP site director for the small town of Zillah — part of the Yakima Valley project. Carlson nominated her for the award, which honors her “outstanding work in coordinating mentor-outreach activities.”
“Bethann does great work,” is how Carlson explains his reason for nominating her. “I can call her on three days notice and tell her I’m going to have some kids on campus and when we get there she’s got plans made and people to carry them out.”
A large part of the UW’s role in GEAR UP is to hold an institute every summer when 1,000 kids from the various projects come to campus in groups of 200 over five weeks. Pflugeisen participates in planning the institute, but she also plans visits that GEAR UP groups like Carlson’s make to the campus during the academic year and goes out to the sites as often as possible.
“I stay in close touch with the site directors and try to help them with whatever they want done,” she says of her role.
Carlson cites the time he called Pflugeisen to tell her he was planning an activity in a Yakima park for GEAR UP kids and their parents. “I said it would be nice if the parents could meet the UW mentors the kids would be working with at the institute,” he says.
Pflugeisen showed up with “two truckloads” of mentors. “They bonded with the parents and the kids and really built trust in the program,” Carlson says.
Hiring and supervising the mentors — UW students who come from similar backgrounds as the GEAR UP kids — is one of Pflugeisen’s responsibilities. Mentors work with GEAR UP kids during the institute and stay in touch during the academic year.
“I love working with the mentors,” she says. “I think they’re creative and fun and a really impressive group. And it’s important to me that they develop professionally themselves, which they can do on this job.”
Carlson believes Pflugeisen has succeeded in encouraging that development. “I think it says something about her that the people who work for her always come prepared,” he says. “They have smiles on their faces and they do a good job.”
Pflugeisen began working for GEAR UP in 2001 after deliberately choosing Seattle as her home. “My family came through here on our way to Canada when I was 10 years old,” she says. “I looked at Seattle and I said that this was where I was going to live when I grew up.”
Her family didn’t take her seriously, Pflugeisen says, but she followed through, staying with family friends until she landed a job in the GEAR UP office. She moved to her present position about six months later.
“I’ve so much enjoyed this work,” she says. “The kids are fun, the mentors I have great respect for. The diversity in the program is unbelievable — even just in our office — and I really like watching the process the kids go through as they begin to see there are more options out there than they thought.”
For Carlson, that process is the bottom line. “We have a lot of partners in this project,” he says. “We work with community colleges, clinics, service agencies and so on. But what matters is the individuals in those organizations and what they’re willing to do. When I make Bethann aware of opportunities to do things for the kids, she always comes through. That’s what counts. That’s what makes her a person who makes a difference.”