Montana State University

MSU student receives national prize for serving global, local communities

May 2, 2011 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


MSU senior Griffin Stevens was one of 20 students across the country to receive a national award for leadership in community service. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN - A Montana State University senior who helped bring drinking wells to Kenyan schools, broadcaster Tom Brokaw to Bozeman and a national trophy to MSU also received a major award for leadership in community service.

Griffin Stevens, of Bozeman, majoring in mechanical engineering and the University Honors Program, was one of 20 students across the country to receive a 2011 Pearson Prize National Fellowship. It gave him $10,000 over the past school year for undergraduate expenses.

"It's a very high honor," said Ilse-Mari Lee, director of the University Honors Program. "He's an exemplary student. He's humble, but such a true leader. He can inspire those around him in a quiet way."

Stevens said he initially became involved with community service projects to make friends, and his friends greatly influenced where he served. Over the years, he became a strong leader who made a difference both locally and globally, according to Lee. Stevens was president of MSU's chapter of Engineers without Borders, senator in the Associated Students of MSU, staff member of the MSU Leadership Institute, and one of the award-winning Ethicats. The team debates ethical issues and won second place in the 2011 national championship.

As past president of the EWB and one of its project managers, Stevens said he lived in a mud hut while supervising teams of MSU students who rotated through Kenya last summer to help bring drinking wells and compost latrines to primary schools. Sharing the Jackson Nashitsakha family compound, Stevens said local support is vital for the long-term success of these projects. The partnership between Kenya and MSU was initiated by Kenyan architect and social activist Ronald Omyonga. The projects are built and maintained by Kenyans with local materials. To nurture relationships between MSU students and Kenyans, Stevens said he walked for miles and occasionally took a Boda Boda (bicycle taxi) or Piki Piki (motorcycle taxi).

"I feel it was an extremely unique opportunity," Stevens said. "I essentially lived in that culture for 2 months. It was tedious at times. It was not something I wanted to do every day. Other times, it was the best way of living."

MSU students have raised more than $300,000 for Kenya projects since forming an EWB chapter in 2002. So far, they have helped install seven wells and six composting latrines. They are currently working to install water pipelines to five more schools.

The overall goal is to bring wells, latrines and water systems to all 57 primary schools in the Khwisero District, located about 20 miles north of Lake Victoria in western Kenya, Stevens said. Kenyan students - especially girls -- can lose up to 1 hours of instruction a day if they have to carry water to the school for drinking and cleaning, he added.

During his one-year term as an at-large senator for the ASMSU, Stevens helped update the ASMSU constitution and by-laws. He spearheaded election reform so senators - starting this fall -- will represent students according to the college they attend instead of whether they live in residence halls, off campus or in the Greek system.

As a member of the MSU Leadership Institute, Stevens played a major role in putting together two issues of the "Cat Tracker" day planner. More than a calendar, the Cat Tracker reminds MSU students of important deadlines and events during the school year. It advises them how to succeed in school and gives them contact information for questions they may have. Stevens also helped organize leadership seminars and workshops for students. He helped arrange Brokaw's visit to campus and introduced him to hundreds of people who attended his February lecture.

His involvement with the Ethicats grew out of his experience as a high school debater and demonstrates again how his friends influenced his participation in extracurricular activities, Stevens said. As a member of the Ethicats, Stevens helped the team win second place in the National Ethics Bowl Championship by debating the ethics of performing surgery to keep a dog from barking and the ethics of an Arizona immigration law that requires officers to ask for proof of citizenship if they have reasonable suspicion that someone is in the country illegally.

Stevens, who graduates this spring, said he enrolled at MSU because of its "fantastic engineering program," and the price was right. Although he graduated from Bozeman High School, he said he didn't feel the need to attend college elsewhere. His father is a commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea, and the job allowed the family to live where they wanted.

Stevens said Lee and many other MSU faculty members, including EWB faculty adviser Otto Stein, were significant influences on his life. Others included his parents, Brooks and Susan Stevens of Bozeman, and fellow students Shane Colvin and Katy Hansen.

Colvin is a former student body president and Stevens' one-time roommate. He was in the MSU Honors Program and won a 2008 George J. Mitchell Scholarship, often called the "Irish Rhodes Scholarship." Hansen won a 2011 Rhodes Scholarship. Like Stevens, she was an engineering student in the MSU Honors Program, served as EWB president, was an ASMSU leader and was active in the MSU Leadership Institute.

Stevens' next major goal is earning a law degree, possibly focusing on environmental law and working in Montana.

"He will be wonderful and somebody we will always be proud of," Lee said.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu