With worldly wisdom, Brian Burke ’01 assumes CSC post

Would you ever consider returning to Williamstown as a graduate – after having traveled around the world twice? Following a firsthand study of social and environmental justice problems caused by globalization and international development in England, Tanzania, India, New Zealand, Mexico and the Philippines, would the serenity of a college town be satisfying in any sense of the word?

For this year’s Williams Community Service Coordinator, Brian Burke ’01, that is precisely the reason for his return. His job title is, without a doubt, indicative of the type of effect the alum hopes to have on the College and the greater Williamstown community. It is Burke’s stated goal to conceive of ways to meld the spheres of the academic and the local in ways that will, in his mind, benefit both.

“From traveling, I realized that community empowerment is the key to resolving a lot of social injustice and environmental problems,” he said. “I always thought of the issue on an international level, but I thought it would be neat to work in the local community for a change.”

Burke comes to the job with the perspective that community service is not providing for the needs of the poor, but rather a step towards empowering communities – a philosophy he gradually adopted after the series of learning experiences he was fortunate enough to undergo. One of his main goals this year as the Community Service Coordinator is to broaden the perspective of Williams students by expanding people’s idea of service to include anything from academic research to internship to political activism.

It cannot hurt, of course, that several of the many nations Burke visited during his tenure abroad are excellent examples of those and similar phenomena. Interaction between different worlds is seen as a key to growth in third-world nations and impoverished areas of developed countries alike – Burke’s relative expertise in the ways in which these countries have attempted to implement such plans gives both he and the College hope that such skill can be wielded here.

Since his undergraduate years, Burke has seen a great number of attempts to increase and maintain close connections between the students and local community service organizations. The first-year mid-orientation program “Where Am I?!” that began last year is one of the many ways incoming students are introduced to “the Purple Valley.” The program, offered as an alternative to WOOLF during First Days, attempts to help the new valley inductees orient themselves within the Williamstown-Pittsfield-North Adams hub. Students are shuttled around to various points of interest within the ‘Berkshire Triangle,’ with the first-years hopefully gaining some sort of an appreciation of the communities that envelop the college.

As a graduate, Burke admits to seeing some amazing aspects of the neighboring communities he failed to notice as a student. “At a recent community service meeting of approximately 100 local organizations I attended last week, I saw so many people from the area who had taken up things on their own initiative because no one else was willing to do it. It’s really inspiring to see that.”

In this activist community, Burke hopes to direct the efforts of local community service organizations through a series of dialogues in order to formulate a joint plan of action with concrete results for issues directly affecting the area. “I want to open the doors of Williams to the community and help students understand local issues and what organizations are currently doing.”

“On a personal level, I want to help build a community here – a community of friends that can sit down and talk and get together to cook,” he said.

While auditing two political economy courses and working to realize his visions for the school year, Burke has a considerable amount of responsibility on his plate. Enough, he thinks, to help him relate to the workload of the students for whom his work will be essential. After all, if he proves unable to relate to Williams’ young and impressionable minds, his work will prove to be that much more difficult.

He still manages, though, to balance his precarious position between a student and a staff member, and to find the fun within it. If not to enjoy all the benefits of being in a small college town, then to appreciate the type of people who reside in one.

On a side note, we should all hail Burke’s return; they say that the two years he was off-campus were the worst winters Williams had ever seen. Maybe with community empowerment will come a mild winter.

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