Mention community service to Devon Seymour, and the high-level energy radiating from the graduating WSU senior goes up a few notches. Her voice becomes more animated. Her crystal-blue eyes shine bright. She leaves little doubt she cares deeply about the topic.
Seymour traces that passion to childhood and the influence of her parents as she grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado. They didn’t give her books about Cinderella, Barbie dolls, or jewelry-crafting kits on her birthdays. No, her parents turned their little girl’s thoughts and expectations in a different direction–toward community service.
Perhaps the moment of epiphany occurred on her 8th birthday, when mom and dad presented her with a book about Madeleine Albright, secretary of state during the Clinton administration. Of equal significance to an impressionable 8-year-old, Albright was the nation’s first female secretary of state and the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government at the time.
As Seymour grew older, her parents gradually involved their only daughter in a variety of volunteer activities at church, at school, and in the community. Before she realized it, the act of volunteering was second nature, as natural as breathing the fresh mountain air in her backyard. Stitched together, those early experiences reinforced what is now one of her core beliefs: that giving back is vital to the wellbeing of communities and, ultimately, to society.
That belief sustained her during the challenging and sometimes despairing moments following the aftermath of the massive mudslide on March 22, 2014, that ripped through the Stillaguamish River valley along State Route 530 in northwestern Washington, claiming 43 lives.
It was in those moments that Seymour’s natural inclination to step up and lend a hand led her to embrace a leadership role in coordinating the Pullman campus’s student response to the catastrophe. It’s a decision that cemented her commitment to spend her life working for the greater good.
Seymour’s decision to attend WSU was atypical. It didn’t involve visits to multiple campuses across the country, agonizing conversations with family members about which college offered the best political science program, or even considerations about trips back home during breaks in the academic year. Instead, she identified two criteria to guide her selection process: 1) a college that would provide opportunities to become more independent and 2) a college whose location would remind her of Fort Collins during moments of homesickness.
Call it fate, happenstance, or dumb luck, but Seymour chose the WSU Pullman campus as the first destination to visit. It was love at first sight.
“I think what really sold me was the advantages the Honors College staff discussed,” she recalls. “They talked a lot about not only being academically successful, but also about the importance of being an active community member, of being a part of something bigger than yourself.
“So I fell in love with the Honors College first, and then moved on to fall in love with the rest of the spirit of the university, which I think is really apparent in the land-grant mission. It’s apparent in a lot of the work that the university does throughout the state and throughout the country as well. I’ve seen that in the experiences I’ve had.”
Seymour knows her global perspective was limited coming out of high school, with her beliefs grounded in her hometown experiences. She credits the Honors College with broadening that viewpoint by offering a global competency certificate. Participating in a study-abroad program in France also helped push her out of her comfort zone, she says.
“Going out of my comfort zone and expanding my world view, becoming a more tolerant person, becoming a more well-rounded person–I think the Honors College has really inspired that.” Perhaps the topic of her honors thesis sums up that expanded perspective best:
“To what extent have language, religion, ethnic origin, political influences, and
economic factors impacted conflict in Ukraine throughout 2013-14? Which of these factors has the most impact in the region? What are potential, viable solutions to the current crisis?”
The initial plan was to earn her WSU degree in two or three years so she could move on to the next goal in her life. But once her natural inclination to get involved took over, Seymour found herself being drawn deeper and deeper into the life of the university and the community, an experience she treasures.
“With each new activity I became more connected, which created the family that became my support system,” she notes. “That experience pushed me to go beyond what I expected of myself and what others have expected of me.”
By graduation, Seymour had completed degrees in political science and French and minors in communication and business administration, an academic load that required compiling 150 credits in four years. Most students graduate with 120.
In typical fashion, Seymour plays down the achievement. “It hasn’t really been all that difficult because I’ve loved my classes, and the subjects overlapped, making it relatively easy and really interesting as well.”
Earning all those credits is part of a master plan. Political science and French tie into her interest in global politics and prepare her for the likelihood she will live abroad as her career takes wing. Similarly, communication will boost her ability to understand and communicate with locals abroad and business administration will help her understand the economic conditions of other countries.
She gives kudos to Thomas Preston, interim director of the School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs and professor of international relations, for helping her to sharpen her current and post-WSU plans. She took his course on international politics and the media as a junior and attended his graduate seminars this year.
“He’s been really influential in helping me determine exactly where I would like to go next with my career,” she says. “He’s been a mentor and a guide in that journey, providing a lot of advice about my capabilities, graduate school, and the best career fit.”
Seymour’s resume fills two pages that document an ambitious four years at WSU, emphasizing–as you would expect–community service and volunteer activities. Member, board of directors, Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse. Director of academic affairs for ASWSU, the student government organization. Student ambassador, College of Arts and Sciences. Chair, “Saving the Spokane,” an undergraduate multidisciplinary research project focused on building awareness of PCBs in the Spokane River. Vice chair, Compton Union Building advisory board. The list goes on.
But out of all of her activities, it’s the SR 530 experience that stands out as Seymour’s watershed moment at WSU.
“They not only contribute to the recovery but give those kids something to look forward to, a way to grow.”
It was just a few days after the magnitude of the March 22 slide became apparent that WSU President Elson S. Floyd began marshaling university resources to help. On April 2, he announced tuition waivers for WSU students from the affected communities. A few days later, a team of faculty and staff from across the university was created to coordinate WSU’s response. By the end of April, summer internships offering opportunities for students to serve in the towns along SR 530 were in place.
Seymour jumped in immediately. Given her previous volunteer experiences, she soon was named coordinator of the university’s local fundraising efforts and student engagement opportunities. She worked closely with community liaisons from the affected communities to identify needs. Before long, WSU students were involved in community cleanup, trail maintenance, building repair, and fundraising, among other activities.
Last summer, Seymour organized a dinner and silent auction on campus to raise money to benefit individuals from the SR 530 communities. Held in early September, the event raised $15,000. She followed that up by leading a group of students who completed a service weekend in Darrington at the end of the month. She led a second group of nearly 50 students to Arlington during the last weekend in March, then squeezed in one more trip before graduating.
Her efforts don’t go unnoticed or unappreciated by the university community. Seymour was named the September 2014 Service Star by the WSU Center for Civic Engagement. Her nominator for the award wrote: “Devon has not only acted with professionalism and grace while taking on multiple complex projects, she recruited and supervised other students to work on those projects with her.”
Seymour carefully chooses her words to describe the volunteer work, noting how an initial sense of heartbreak in the community gradually has been replaced with a sense of resolve that unites residents and volunteers in their efforts. “A great example of the growth aspect,” she says, “has been the youth projects that have been developed. They not only contribute to the recovery but give those kids something to look forward to, a way to grow. And they see the benefits of higher education and the benefits of working in your community.”
Assisting with the recovery, Seymour believes, also has deepened the university’s commitment to leveraging its resources to assist communities across the state when natural disasters strike. “I think that WSU has really shown its ability to the wider Washington community as well as to Darrington and Arlington. I think that’s been really impactful and has changed the way that Washington State University is going to move forward when addressing challenges that people in Washington are struggling with, whether it be wildfires, floods, natural disasters, or something manmade.”
For her own future–and the ambitious dreams she harbors–the SR 530 experience has reaffirmed the direction she’s chosen.
Seymour’s long-term goal is to work for the U.S. Department of State. Her dream job? U.S. ambassador or staff member at a consulate. For the short term, she’s set her sights on being hired by the U.S. Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, an organization that helps resolve conflicts in regions of the world vital to the country’s strategic goals.
First things first, though. Following her May graduation from WSU, and before heading off to graduate school in a year, Seymour will move in the fall to the French island of Corsica for seven months to teach English to French students. The opportunity is part of a joint initiative of the French Ministry of Education, the Centre international d’etudes pedagogiques, and the cultural services department of the French embassy to strengthen English-language instruction in French schools. More than 1,100 American citizens teach in public schools across France each year through the program.
For Seymour, the experience will provide an opportunity to put her French language skills to practical use while experiencing French culture, connecting with the people, and deepening her understanding of world politics.
“If I’m doing my math right, it’s my 11th year studying it (the French language),” she says. “I just was too stubborn to let it go and also saw it as a really great opportunity to connect with people in their own language. So, if I were to choose to work in Africa or if I were to choose to work in Europe, this language is really beneficial and has really pushed me to pursue other potential languages as well that would make me be able to connect with people on a more local level while working in a global sphere.”
When she returns to this country, Seymour will pursue graduate studies at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, the nation’s top-ranked graduate program for public affairs, according to the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. There she’ll complete joint master’s degrees in international relations and public administration and complete an internship abroad.
“I’m looking very closely at conflict as the next steps of my educational process and my career, which will build really well on my service experiences,” she says. “Because that will not only prepare me to potentially work for the state department, it will allow me to work closely with humanitarian organizations.”
And then, in her next breath, she ticks off a short list of other organizations with a global orientation she’d love to work for: the Gates Foundation, the United Nations, UNICEF, “organizations that really make a difference on a community level.”
It’s a future that would make Madeleine Albright proud.
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