Ask Jeremy Schenk to tell you a story the next time you see him. If he has a minute, he’ll likely dip into his briefcase, pull out a folder and flip through a collection of fables and inspirational tales he carries.
Storytelling is not mentioned in Schenk’s job description. As new director of the University Student Commons and activities at VCU, he oversees two buildings, more than 175 employees and 500-plus student organizations. He has a $5 million operational budget to worry about, but Schenk still makes time to tell stories to students.
“For me, it’s really about inspiring students to go on and do great things,” Schenk said.
The Illinois native has worked in student affairs since 2000. Schenk graduated from Illinois State University with degrees in social work and political science before completing his master’s degree in college administration in 2001. He took a job as a resident hall director and lived among the students he worked with.
In 2006, Missouri State University hired Schenk as its director of student engagement. While in Springfield, he spearheaded the university’s effort to open its Center for Leadership and Volunteerism.
Schenk helped organize Missouri State students who in 2010 raised $50,000 – including $34,000 in 50 hours – for a disaster relief fund aiding victims of the Haiti earthquake.
“He brought students together and said, ‘Does this concern you? Do you want to do something about this?’ and let them know that it wasn’t too far away or of too great a magnitude for them to have an impact,” said Mike Jungers, Missouri State’s dean of students.
When disaster struck closer to home, Schenk rallied students and rolled up his sleeves.
Missouri State students removed debris, worked at shelters and helped rebuild neighborhoods decimated by an F-5 tornado that tore through Joplin, Mo. in 2011. In all, Schenk said the school sent students to the community 13 times over the course of a year.
Schenk wants to offer more alternative break programs for VCU students interested in service. More importantly, he wants to show students that every act makes a difference, no matter how small.
“It’s one thing to send a group of students to volunteer at a food pantry,” he said. “It’s another thing to send them to the pantry and then spend time afterwards reflecting about the issues of hunger and poverty that our society faces, to make sure that it’s meaningful service.”
While Schenk takes pride in his profession, he said family and his health are his top priorities.
The father of four has been married to his wife, Kate, for 13 years. The couple met while interning at the Illinois statehouse in high school.
Schenk, who has struggled with his weight throughout his life, ran the Chicago Marathon in October 2012 after losing more than 100 pounds.
You might catch him working out at the Cary Street Gym on his lunch break, side-by-side with students. He said it’s important to him to find the right balance of work and health – to lead by example.
VCU last year hired a national search firm to find a new director for the Commons. Tim Reed headed the building for 14 years before taking a job as assistant dean of student affairs in June 2012. Reuban Rodriguez, dean of student affairs, filled the post on an interim basis last year. VCU hired Schenk in December 2012 and he took over this past May.
“He’s a very humble person and an excellent candidate, not only for his skills, but his connections nationally,” Rodriguez said.
Schenk is a member of the Association of College Unions International, an organization for student affairs and college union professionals. The organization has an award named after a former director of VCU’s University Student Commons, Revis Cox. Schenk won it in 2006.
The new director said he wants to “infuse the VCU brand into the Commons.” Replacing the first-floor furniture, upgrading the technology in the theater and rebuilding the information desk are on the to-do list, he said. VCU Dining Services funded a $2.2 million renovation of the building’s dining area and convenience store over the summer.
“You walk in to the Commons now and you don’t see a lot of black and gold,” Schenk said. “Even if people are just passing through, we want them to know it is VCU.”
January 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the Commons’ construction. The building was erected in three phases over 20 years. A fourth phase is planned and Schenk says it’s needed, but likely won’t be funded any time soon.
Nearly 2 million people passed through the Commons and Hunton Student Center last year alone.