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April 27, 2017

Making Pitt Work: Misti McKeehen

making pitt work.McKeehen.MLMisti McKeehen is at home amid the organized noise inside the William Pitt Union’s Assembly Room, as more than 50 Pitt students work around eight tables to create or assemble items for local nonprofits: health and school supplies for Pressley Ridge students; planners for young adults pursuing careers through a Hill House program; or blankets for Hillman Cancer Center patients.

McKeehen’s calling is to instill in these students a sense of their own service mission. She’s the director of PittServes, overseeing volunteer programs that students, as well as faculty and staff, can participate in. PittServes helps more than 300 community partners in Pittsburgh and, increasingly, throughout the nation and abroad.

“Our whole mission,” McKeehen says, “is to build a culture of service on campus and make sure students are engaging in Oakland, beyond Oakland, in alliance with their academic career, or at a tangent — so now, and when they graduate, they have a connection to something that is larger than themselves and eventually have a connection to a community they will call home.”

McKeehen is bracing for the lunchtime rush, but already at this twice annual snack-and-serve event there are students from the Pitt dance marathon, making cards and “encouragement decorations” for Children’s Hospital patients; from Alpha Phi Omega, creating enrichment toys for animal shelters in town; and from the Student Office of Sustainability, putting together bird-seed ornaments for local community gardeners to attract pollinators.

“Students are seeing service as something they can fit into their schedule even though they are busy college students,” McKeehen says.


McKeehen became PittServes’ director in February 2014.

Born in Indiana County, she earned her BA in business and communications from Carlow University and an MS in community leadership at Duquesne University. Today she is in her first year of a doctoral program at Pitt’s School of Education. She already is planning her dissertation on PittServes’ mission, examining how to engage first-generation and low-income students in alternative spring break and other service programs. She recently returned from such a trip to Ecuador with a dozen Pitt students.

PittServes had been offering alternative break programs in other states and Washington,D.C., before she arrived, McKeehen notes, but she was happy to expand the scope to other countries as well. This spring, students spent half their time in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, and half in the town of Otavalo, helping members of its indigenous community open an outdoor market for residents as well as tourists.

The students helped to finish the main market structure, sanding and cleaning, moving hundreds of bricks and painting a mural on its concrete wall. They also planted nearly two dozen trees on the market grounds.

McKeehen’s most visible work is probably Pitt Make a Difference Day. Last year, 3,875 participants from the Pitt community worked at more than 100 local social service agencies. The event has been so successful that this spring Pitt was selected for a National Make a Difference Day Award.

PittServes also has school- and department-specific partnerships, such as its program with the School of Information Sciences and the computer science department in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, which connects IT students to community groups that need help improving their computer systems.

Many of this program’s volunteers are international graduate students who may feel isolated here, McKeehen notes. Thus, volunteering may help them as much as it helps local nonprofits, she says.

On March 20, McKeehen joined a delegation of these students in China to talk to tech conference attendees about best practices for service programs.

making pitt work.McKeehen event.ML



Some of McKeehen’s work takes place in corners of the University that may not be visible to most other staff or faculty. In April 2015, for instance, she helped create the Pitt Pantry in the Bellefield Presbyterian Church on campus. This student-run space provides access to nutritious food for students who may not be able to afford every meal, serving about 200 students each academic year.

PittServes also has a student civic engagement council that plans and implements up to 30 service projects each month, coordinating with many community partners.

Visible to all, McKeehen hopes, is PittServes’ online volunteer portal (, at which anyone with a Pitt email address can log in and search for particular types, dates or locations of volunteer opportunities — or even search by skills needed for the service projects.

The portal also helps PittServes channel the energies of volunteers to work that is truly needed: “There’s a lot of service that can be done,” she cautions, “but if the community doesn’t need it, it’s a waste.”

Together with her whole team at PittServes, she says, making public service possible for all parts of Pitt “does take a lot of planning and community work.”


As an undergraduate business and communications major, McKeehen had thought she would work marketing a big company somewhere. But during her internship at Coro Pittsburgh, which aims to grow local leaders, she realized that “being able to make that connection with a mission and loving the City of Pittsburgh was just a perfect storm” — she had found her career.

McKeehen’s first experience working with a community service program was as site director for AmeriCorps’ public allies program. She oversaw the implementation of 10-month placements for 18-26-year-olds in community nonprofits, “so they could work with the community, not just for the community, to implement a project,” she emphasizes.

Of her current work, McKee-hen says: “Every day is different, with the ability to work with 100, 200 students here today who are very different than the students I will go and serve with over the weekend … The end goal is making Pittsburgh a better place, making the student experience better. To me it’s really not a job, it’s a chance to change lives.

“When I read the job description, I was so excited the University was making such a commitment,” she adds. “I just wanted to be a part of it. As long as our mission is that culture of service, then we’re all headed toward our North Star.”

—Marty Levine

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