Lesley Graybeal almost didn’t accept the nomination for Nonclassified Employee of the Year at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway because she was on maternity leave with her daughter.
Violet, then 2 weeks old, did her part by staying quiet while Graybeal conducted a phone interview for the honor, which she received earlier this year.
“I was so worried about [the interview]. I said, ‘I hope you don’t hear a crying baby or I have to run away from the phone,’” Graybeal said, laughing.
But Violet didn’t make a peep.
“She’s a very chill baby; she’s a very happy baby,” Graybeal said. She and her husband, Zach Smith, also have a 3-year-old son, Milo.
Graybeal, director of the UCA service-learning program, said she was surprised to receive the award.
“We have so many hard workers and just people who deserve a big thanks,” she said. “It’s a huge honor.”
A three-year employee, she was nominated by Shelley Mehl, associate vice president for outreach and community engagement, who retired June 30.
In Graybeal’s nomination letter, Mehl wrote that Graybeal is “the consummate professional” and has increased service learning for students, faculty and staff. To date, 59 faculty taught a service-learning class in 2017-18, which involved 2,307 students.
Mehl said Graybeal is “a strong advocate for UCA students,” noting that Graybeal supervised student workers in leading the Faulkner County Juvenile Court tutoring program and developing a new partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of Faulkner County mentoring program, as well as volunteer days with the Arkansas Food Bank.
Graybeal is the adviser for The Big Event Committee, an annual volunteer event held in Conway each March, as well as the Food Recovery Network at UCA.
Mehl said Graybeal secured grants to enhance and expand UCA’s engaged-learning programs, including a grant to provide stipends for students to assist with voter registration and engagement efforts through the Vote Everywhere national network.
Mehl said Graybeal also worked with international engagement to get a grant to fund an exchange and study-abroad partnership in Mexico, including service-l
earning courses for UCA students and service-learning experiences for visiting students.
“She is respected by all those with whom she works,” Mehl said.
Graybeal started her career as an English teacher at a community college.
She grew up in Augusta, Georgia, where her parents still live. Her father was a physician, and her mother worked at the state Department of Education in South Carolina.
Graybeal went to the University of Georgia and for a minute declared her major as pre-med.
“I changed it to English as soon as I got there,” she said. Graybeal said she loves writing.
She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and a doctorate in the social foundation of education, which includes sociology, and the philosophy and history of education. From there, she got interested in service learning.
Her first job out of college was teaching English at a community college in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I really enjoyed that; I did that for five years. I miss the students, but I really don’t miss grading papers, ever,” she said.
Graybeal also helped get the college’s service-learning program off the ground.
She taught while her husband, Zach Smith, earned a doctorate in Asian history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When he landed a job at UCA, she started looking for a job there, too.
UCA had recently launched its service-learning program, and the person who had been assisting with the program retired. It was perfect timing for Graybeal, who landed the job, which started as coordinator and became a director’s position.
“Kristy Carter, who hired me, refers to it as divine intervention,” Graybeal said.
“I called hiring Lesley a divine intervention because we established the service-learning
program a year before we hired her,” said Carter, director of marketing for outreach and community engagement, “and we knew the program needed a full-time coordinator, so we conducted a national search for the position. When I received Lesley’s application, I knew she was the right person for the job.
“All the stars aligned, and the universe answered our call for a highly qualified professional with the experience we needed to grow and sustain our service-learning program. I tell Lesley all the time that she was one of my best hires. She is an invaluable asset to UCA, and we are very grateful to have her on our outreach team.”
Carter said Graybeal brings “a lot of heart and passion for our students and communities we serve.”
Graybeal said she identifies three main responsibilities in her position:
• She establishes and maintains relationships with 77 nonprofit partners. She has formed partnerships with more than 100 agencies in central Arkansas to provide opportunities for students, faculty and staff to volunteer. She coordinates networking events to help form relationships.
• She provides consulting and professional-development opportunities for faculty who want to add service learning to their courses. “I provide that support for them,” she said. Graybeal said she has a small pot of money to fund supplies, if needed, too. “Students are applying what they’ve learned to do some more hands-on activities and meet community needs,” she said.
• She works with the student body to connect students with volunteer opportunities. Graybeal
maintains an electronic calendar of volunteer opportunities, so “if [students] wake up one Saturday morning and are looking for something to volunteer at — it might be a 5K or a workday at a community garden” — they see it on the list.
And does Graybeal practice what she preaches?
She was at Panera Bread at 6 a.m. one day last week to get the restaurant’s leftover bread to take to Bethlehem House, a homeless shelter in Conway, to help the Food Recovery Network. So, yes.
Graybeal said service learning is a significant part of UCA’s mission.
“Providing students with hands-on experiential learning opportunities is part of intellectual excellence,” she said. “I think UCA has a really great relationship with the local community. It’s not that kind of ivory-tower image a lot of communities have of the university. Our motto in the university is ‘connecting the university with the community.’ We want students to leave prepared to be good citizens and good community members.”
Her goals for the service-learning program include continuing to see more service-learning classes in every college of the university. Another goal is to find better ways to document student learning.
“This past year, we put together a civic-action plan for the university,” she said,
which includes service learning.
For it to be true service learning, students have to reflect on the service and what they learned and apply it to their behavior in future experiences, she said.
An example would be a student who painted a house for a Conway resident during The Big Event. The student might explore the social structure of “why does this person need my help?”
Mehl said that whether Graybeal’s working one on one or with a larger group, she is “a welcomed, effective leader in engaged learning here at UCA.”
The UCA Nonclassified Employee of the Year Award is more meaningful, Graybeal said, because she is also part of the Staff Senate. Its Employee Recognition Committee selects Nonclassified Employee of the Year.
Graybeal said she considers her most significant accomplishment as “having grown the service-learning program and increased the profile of service learning on campus.”
“There are so many things I love about this job,” she said. “This job is never boring.”
Graybeal said she brings together a diverse group of people through the program.
“I find that so rewarding, to be that person who brings so many people together,” she said.
And with all those attributes and accomplishments, it’s likely that a crying baby wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.