A little research reveals many theories for why people volunteer. From the obvious (volunteering makes people feel good) to the esoteric (volunteering is a rational action arrived at through cost-benefit analysis), these hypotheses pale in comparison to the real-life enthusiasm and commitment expressed by the people who offer their volunteer service to UB.
While it's unlikely that most of UB's volunteers undertook a cost-benefit analysis before they jumped in, it's certainly clear that the university benefits from their altruism and hard work. Moreover, their value to UB is acknowledged at the highest level.
“UB's progress as a 21st-century public research institution is meaningful only if it fuels corresponding progress in the communities we impact—socially, economically and intellectually,” says UB President John B. Simpson. “As an institution, we're committed to pursuing a course of academic excellence that will enable us to enrich lives and strengthen communities locally, nationally and globally. This mission is fueled, in no small measure, by the commitment, service and leadership of the university friends who give so generously of their time and energy in support of UB and its institutional vision.”
Numbers indicative of this generous service are not easy to come by, given the volunteer activity within every school and office. Results from just one group, however, give some indication of how much the university gains in terms of time: The Retired Employee Volunteers—University Program (REV-UP) is made up of 78 UB retirees and their spouses. The group's manager, UB staffer Leila Baker, has kept statistics for the past 15 years on the amount of time members have donated. According to her records, REV-UP members have given to UB nearly 47,000 volunteer hours since 1990.
Many of UB's most devoted and active volunteers are alumni. Others have worked for the university. Still more develop an interest in the university via more circuitous routes. All have multiple reasons for volunteering. Yet common threads exist among this disparate group and among their reasons for giving of themselves. Here, then, are the top 10 reasons that valued volunteers interviewed by UB Today offer for dedicating their time, energy and emotion to the university.
Many alumni seem to have a particular desire to participate in or help shape UB's future. Attorney James Gerlach, JD '97, cites a quotation from George Orwell— He who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the present, controls the past —to explain his efforts to raise the profile of UB's Law School. “I'd like to see UB viewed as one of the top law schools,” he says. “If UB is thought of highly, [its alumni] are thought of highly, too.” Gerlach's service on behalf of UB includes gathering attorneys to serve as judges in the law school's annual moot court competitions, so important to legal training.
Arts consultant Helene Blieberg, BA '77, is president of the New York City chapter of UB's alumni association and sits on its national alumni association board. She sees a direct link between her studies at UB and her work, and wishes to give back by being “a voice for the arts on campus.” Attending a New York City chapter event a few years ago, Blieberg met Sandra Olsen, director of the UB Art Galleries, who asked Blieberg to be “another set of eyes” in the development of a new master's degree program in arts administration. Thus, Blieberg, in her own words, “helped a new program get off the ground.”
Robert Morris, BA '67, is a New Jersey investment-management firm executive and serves as a member of the UB College of Arts and Sciences Dean's Advisory Council. He also looks for ways to help UB achieve its aspirations. Dean Uday Sukhatme's plans for a “center of excellence” for the college struck a chord with Morris. So he and his wife, Carol, recently provided a major gift to UB to help establish the Signature Center of Excellence in 21st Century Music and provide support for “June in Buffalo,” UB's internationally known annual festival and conference dedicated to emerging composers. See related article on page 8.
Some people who volunteer for UB are simply continuing a family tradition. Lobbyist Cheryl (McEneny) Napoli, BA '01, is the volunteer regional coordinator for UB's Alumni Ambassadors in Washington, DC. Although Napoli was involved at UB as a tour guide, in working for the Office of Student Affairs and more, the concept of volunteering came from her parents. “They always encouraged us,” she says.
Likewise, the recipient of UB's 1990 Distinguished Alumni Award, retired educator Willie Evans, EdB '60, grew up in a “culture of volunteering.” That upbringing has resulted in Evans's more than 35-year commitment to volunteering with UB in multiple ways—from acting in nearly every capacity of the UB Alumni Association to serving on the search committee that brought President Simpson to UB in 2004. Marie Schillo, whose late husband, Tom, was a UB administrator for 25 years, has been part of REV-UP and other UB volunteer groups for many years now. She, too, tells of a family custom: “As I think back, my dad was a great church volunteer. My mother complained because he was there so much,” she says, laughing.
Gratification for some volunteers comes about when they see their labors come to successful fruition. Retired pharmacist Alton “Al” Tower, BS '53, affirms that he has “seen a lot of results” from his work. Tower was a member of the Pharmacy Participating Fund (now the school's Annual Fund) committee, which raised funds to support activities for the UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences above and beyond what state funding could provide. Indeed, the fund was an important source for getting quality faculty and lab equipment, which has helped shape a UB program now ranked as one of the nation's best. Tower also served on the pharmacy school campaign committee, which raised $1.6 million for the school during the 2000–03 Campaign for UB: Generation to Generation.
Morris, whose gift has established the Signature Center of Excellence in 21st Century Music, emphasizes that “being able to see something tangible come out of” his efforts—for instance, building a program—is a major motivator. Helene Blieberg agrees; she says, “At this stage, I want to see things I'm involved with succeed.” Her work with the UB Alumni Association currently involves a strategic plan “that has many ambitious goals for increasing awareness and membership, and I want to help achieve those goals.”
Environmental engineer Michelle Rhodes, BS '99, is a member of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Alumni Association board of directors. Serving on the school's Leaders in Excellence Scholarship and Engineer of the Year committees culminates in the year-end scholarship reception, where, says Rhodes, “All our efforts come to fruition. It's very rewarding.”
For UB's volunteers, “connection” has several shades of meaning. Kimberly Pustulka, BS '97, an attorney, is president of the Cleveland chapter of UB's alumni association and a board member for the general alumni association as well. Actively involved in campus life as a student, she values her volunteer work today as an opportunity to continue to be involved in UB. Volunteering, she says, “ties together my past in Buffalo and my present. I'm proud of UB and of Buffalo, and this is another Buffalo connection for me.”
Cheryl Napoli relates nearly the same tale of increasing interconnection with UB as a motivating factor for service. “I was very involved in school—residence halls, student affairs, etc. When I moved away, it was good to have that link.” Napoli's sister is a current UB student, so she still attends each Homecoming celebration in October. “I still feel a connection and want to keep it up,” she states.
Judith Case-DiPasquale, MA '88, coordinator of the alumni association's San Diego chapter, uses her volunteer work to bridge distance. Organizing key alumni events and growing the chapter are just two of the ways she encourages West Coast alumni to reconnect with UB. “We're so far away in San Diego,” she says, “the focus of the university might not resonate as it should. The understanding of the purpose of UB and our desire to see UB grow and expand is the message I try to bring back to California.”
Although “giving back” might sound clichéd, the notion is one of the most commonly voiced inspirations among UB volunteers. Several members of Robert Morris's family—parents, spouse, child—also attended or graduated from UB. Clearly evident is Morris's sense of wanting to give to an institution that had, what he terms, “a formative role” in his life.
Ed Ryczek, BS '71, is president of the Alumni Association's Phoenix chapter. Says Ryczek, a retired financial executive from Buffalo and later Arizona, “I always felt indebted for my UB education, which was one of the reasons I was successful in my field. It was a great stepping stone.” San Diego's Judith Case-DiPasquale also feels the education she received made a major difference in her career. “That degree has such credibility within the world of work that I felt I had to give back to the school for providing opportunity for me,” she says.
Expressing his desire to pay back UB, James Gerlach cites yet another quotation—from Thomas Jefferson— There is a debt of service due from every man to his country, proportioned to the bounties which nature and fortune have measured to him. Says Gerlach, “I have benefited from the taxpayers of New York State and the United States my entire educational career.”
Adding a bit of spice to their lives is one of the more emotional reasons volunteers have for expending time and effort for UB.
While he's not an alumnus, former astronaut Joseph Allen is a friend, advisor and donor to the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Allen, who says he's “old enough to be a curmudgeon,” enjoys “being around young people. It keeps me young.” Willie Evans calls his volunteer experiences “fun”; indeed the UB Athletic Hall of Famer can be spotted at Bulls games and other campus and alumni events, wearing a UB pin and showing steadfast devotion to his alma mater. Now a life member of the UB Alumni Association, he says, “It doesn't seem as though it is more than 30 years ago that I joined.”
Ed Ryczek's volunteer work seems like a stress-reducer in addition to a good time. Even while he was working, his volunteerism enhanced his life. “It takes your mind away from the anxieties of running a business,” he says. “You walk away from your work environment and enter an environment that's totally unrelated.” In retirement, he adds, volunteering “brings another dimension and keeps you from getting bored.” Planning and taking part in UB alumni activities like Happy Hour Network gatherings and cultural events probably help a little, too.
Cheryl Napoli, who's young enough not to be a curmudgeon, avows, “I feel energized every time I work on this stuff.”
Even though they might be several years—or several decades—removed from their student days at UB, several alumni volunteers want to make sure their opinions about the school's direction and activities are heard. Helene Blieberg wants to “be a voice on the UB Alumni Association board for alumni from the New York City area. I understand the value of informed volunteers; when decisions are made at UB about certain subjects, it helps to have many voices at the table.”
Other volunteers want to serve as a voice for alumni, but to the outside world. Willie Evans keeps giving his time because he cares about serving as an alumni advocate for UB with the community, philanthropic agencies or individuals, and government. “I've said this over and over—you owe it to yourself to extend your relationship by volunteering and advocating for the university.”
Robert Morris uses his alumni voice to bring to UB other ways of approaching challenges. For instance, he works closely with an educational institution in the private sector. Morris has used the knowledge gained from that experience to help traditionally state-funded UB better understand how the private higher-education system works, as well as to “bring some of the development tools” from the private-education realm to UB.
Friendships— both personal and professional—have kept many people in the volunteer circle. REV-UP member Marie Schillo has also been a member of UB's Women's Club for 50 years. She credits her enjoyment of the camaraderie of her fellow volunteers with her longevity in the group and says, “I've made a lot of friends.”
Kimberly Pustulka credits her UB volunteerism with providing her a “very specific reward.” A transplant to Cleveland for her career, Pustulka's experience with that city's UB Alumni Association chapter helped her make new friends there, as well as get involved in her new community, which was a personal goal. “It's a perfect fit,” she says.
While living and working in Buffalo, Ed Ryczek grew his circle of professional friends during his years on the School of Management alumni board and in starting up and running the Phoenix alumni association chapter. “Networking is an important part of what we do,” he says. “I feel we can help other UB alumni reach different levels in their careers by offering some advice and putting them in touch with others.”
Joseph Allen admits that when he was CEO of nearby Calspan Corporation, a renowned research center specializing in science and technology, his volunteer service to UB wasn't at all altruistic. “I wanted more good engineers for the company. If you're outside the dean's door, you can offer the [graduates] employment faster than anyone else,” he says, laughing. Nonetheless, his belief that putting more emphasis on engineering would be economically worthwhile for UB, its students and the Western New York community drove him to counsel UB's powers to commit more resources to the engineering programs. “That seems to be happening,” says Allen.
Marie Schillo's work with UB's Women's Club—indeed the entire group's work—focuses on raising funds for financial and academic scholarships. Up to 40 top students—all with GPAs of at least 3.9—annually receive awards from Schillo and her volunteer colleagues. “It's an honor for them,” she says.
According to engineer Michelle Rhodes, volunteering has “helped me realize how important the development of people really is. In my past, I had a mentor who guided me, though I didn't realize the full impact of it at the time. If I could make a fraction of that influence on somebody's life, then I've accomplished what I'm trying to do.”
One of the most palpable emotions evinced by nearly all UB's volunteers is the pride they feel in the university—no matter what their connection. Helene Blieberg is pleased “to be involved with something as vibrant as UB. There are so many exciting things going on, academically and otherwise.”
Michelle Rhodes's pride in being an alumna, as well as her pride in the caliber of students the engineering school generates, translates into her continued endeavors on behalf of the university. “Every year I'm amazed at the students' achievements, both academically and in the community. It's a pleasure and a joy to be involved with them.”
Al Tower feels similarly toward the school that gave him his degree. In 2004, Tower's peers recognized him by bestowing the Willis G. Gregory Award (named for the school's fourth dean and recognizing an outstanding pharmacist who personifies ideals of service and integrity). “I am proud to be a pharmacist who graduated from UB's pharmacy school, and I will continue to support its programs,” he says. Joseph Allen, recipient of an honorary SUNY doctor of science degree awarded at the engineering school's 2003 commencement, comments that while “an outsider, I'm taken by UB's efforts. I like its mission, and I've noted over the years that UB has improved in nearly every measure and continues to do so.”
The university's movement upward, particularly in measures of academic excellence, is helped immensely by the work of its volunteers, says UB's president, John Simpson. “Collectively, these individuals illustrate the broad spectrum of meaningful service to the university, from helping us to recruit and retain the best and brightest faculty and students to furthering our community outreach initiatives. By sharing their support and expertise, these volunteers have an impact that extends far beyond the boundaries of our campus—by supporting UB's mission, they in turn advance our commitment to the greater public good.”
Grace A. Lazzara is a freelance writer based in Buffalo.