Alumnus Ryan Gayman, a Rhodes Finalist, Spearheaded Pitt’s Academic Community Engagement Advising Program

Issue Date: 
January 13, 2014

“What makes you angry?” This is the unusual but useful question that advisor Ryan L. Gayman (A&S ’12) asked of all Pitt students who stepped into his office looking to contribute their time and academic talents to the betterment of the city around them.

Their answers, which typically revealed the types of social problems they were passionate about overcoming, led to insightful conversations on everything from local politics to gender discrimination issues to public transportation deficiencies. 

This discourse, says Gayman, was his first step in connecting Pitt students to local community service opportunities through Academic Community Engagement Advising, a specialized program within the University Honors College. 

Conceptualized and spearheaded by Gayman, the program helps Pitt students find opportunities within the community to use their Pitt-acquired academic and professional skills to positively impact the lives of others. In just two years, Academic Community Engagement Advising has successfully worked with more than 180 Pitt students, connecting them with civic and community organizations throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania.

“AcademicRyan Gayman Community Engagement Advising is about taking the University’s greatest resource—the students—and putting them in a position to make a real impact in the community,” said Gayman, who earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and urban studies in the spring of 2012 and helped found the program in the fall of that year. “By taking the skills acquired in our classrooms and applying them in real world settings, students at the University can assist the City of Pittsburgh in making lasting progress in many key areas.”

Pitt senior Mary Mallampalli is one such student. When Gayman asked her his standard “What makes you angry?” question, the Spanish, political science, and philosophy triple major from Iowa City, Iowa, expressed frustration at the lack of educational access in a number of Pittsburgh’s inner city neighborhoods.

“I don’t think it’s a secret to anyone that education is a key aspect to making it in our society,” said Mallampalli. “I found it personally troublesome that young people in various parts of Pittsburgh were not receiving the same opportunities to succeed that I and many Pitt students have received throughout our lives.”

Through Academic Community Engagement Advising, Gayman connected Mallampalli with the nonprofit organization FUSE Pittsburgh, which works to improve literacy rates among underrepresented youths in Pittsburgh’s East End. Amidst a hectic class and work schedule, Mallampalli served as a mentor and a tutor to high school juniors and seniors in Wilkinsburg.

Mallampalli calls her volunteer service with FUSE Pittsburgh some of the most rewarding work of her academic career because it allowed her to make meaningful connections within the local community.

“Over time, Pittsburgh becomes more than just the place where you go to school. It becomes home, and you want to see your home grow and thrive,” said Mallampalli.

The advising program is housed in the Office of Academic Community Engagement within the University Honors College. In addition to Academic Community Engagement Advising, the office has established a community-based research fellowship, aimed at helping Pitt undergraduates develop methods to address the region’s pertinent social concerns. The office also has initiated a grant program for Pitt professors who want to integrate service-learning courses within their individual disciplines.

Gayman’s future is just as bright as the office he has shaped. During the fall semester, he was named a national finalist for the 2014 Rhodes Scholarship, the oldest and most prestigious of the international study awards available to U.S. students. He was one of the top applicants selected from a pool of 1,750 in the nation to reach the final stage of the Rhodes competition. During the application process, Gayman garnered references and letters of recommendation from numerous Pitt officials, including University Honors College Dean Edward Stricker, who stated in his letter of support:

“[Ryan’s] contributions to the University Honors College, to Pitt, and to the surrounding community during the past 14 months have been wonderful and generally reflect his determination to provide students with opportunities that develop their general skills, knowledge, and sense of purpose in the world.

A distinctive feature of the Office of Academic Community Engagement is the meaningful level at which the students apply their academic interests and skills to their work with community partners. The students’ immersion in Pittsburgh businesses, nonprofit organizations, and other initiatives is a tremendous benefit for both the community and the students’ personal and professional growth.”

Gayman also is one of only nine professionals in the world awarded a 2014 Lantos-Humanity in Action Congressional Fellowship. The prestigious honor is named for the late Thomas P. Lantos, a Holocaust survivor and a champion of human rights who served as a U.S. representative of California from 1981 to 2008.

As a Lantos Fellow, Gayman will assume a staff position in the Washington, D.C., office of a U.S. Congress member later this month. He will support the representative’s legislative agenda and also assist other congressional aides on various human rights issues through May 2014.

In the University Honors College, meanwhile, Holly Hickling has been named the new Academic Community Engagement advisor to succeed Gayman.

As for Gayman, he intends to continue his life’s work—seeking to improve the lives of others. Gayman considers the development of the Office of Academic Community Engagement his greatest accomplishment at Pitt, and he looks forward to watching the program evolve as he pursues other opportunities.

“My time as the Academic Community Engagement advisor was a powerful learning experience. It gave me the opportunity to help form positive, mutually beneficial relationships between Pitt and our community. In doing so, I’ve gained an insight as to how institutions of higher education can be dynamic agents in contributing to surrounding communities and in cultivating engaged, critically reflective citizens,” Gayman said. “Now, I am eager to learn how legislative policy and our governing institutions can be positive forces for promoting diversity, equality, and social mobility.”