Molly Bulman ’12 is all about puzzles, but not the thousand-piece ones that reveal pictures of kittens or castles when completed. The puzzles she is looking to solve involve the utilization of existing resources to address civic and social issues like hunger.
During the Charter Day ceremony on Feb. 3, Bulman’s work will be recognized when she receives the College of William & Mary’s Monroe Prize for Civic Engagement. The award is presented annually to a student who “demonstrates sustained leadership of an unusual quality – leadership combined with initiative, character, and an unfailing commitment to leveraging the assets of the William and Mary community to address the needs of our society.”
“Molly has become a leading voice on campus in the cause of hunger awareness, combining her activist fervor with solid academic analysis in an effort to educate and motivate those around her,” said Drew Stelljes, director of community engagement. “She epitomizes the characteristics of the empathic citizen scholar. She blends passion with purpose, interest with intellect, citizenship with scholarship.”
A native of New Jersey, Bulman grew up seeing her parents conduct service work through their synagogue and community organizations. Her mom served on the board of the South Jersey Food Bank, and her dad ran a food drive that took place each Yom Kippur.
“They had different approaches to the same social issue” said Bulman. “They’re incredibly resourceful, and they know what needs to get done. We’re a very systematic family, and we like to put all of the puzzle pieces together.”
Bulman came into William & Mary as a Sharpe Scholar, where she received an introduction to all of the service opportunities available on campus. As a freshman, she became involved with the Campus Kitchen at William & Mary, which gathers food from local businesses and restaurants and delivers it to Williamsburg families in need. At first, Bulman helped with the cooking shifts, but she was soon invited to help with the organization’s finances and fundraising.
“It was exciting to start working on grants and see the business side of an organization like this, and that kind of grew into my most recent role as student coordinator,” she said.
Bulman said that the Campus Kitchen has been her “absolute favorite opportunity on campus.” Since her freshman year, she has seen the organization double the number of meals it delivers each week to approximately 180 and begin new programs like Fun at Five, which provides activities and field trips to children.
“When I first started, Campus Kitchen was two years old, and a lot of our residents hated that we were assuming they needed food. We got a lot of slammed doors,” said Bulman. “It was an interesting transition to have them begin to trust us, have them trust us with their kids after school, and today – as I’m leaving – I see the new student team getting ready to have start new programs with them.”
In addition to her work with the Campus Kitchen, Bulman has been also been highly involved in student government at the College. Last year, she served as the secretary of student life for the Student Assembly; this year, she is the vice president. She has also remained involved in the Sharpe Program, serving as a fellow and, this year, as a program assistant.
“I have a lot of different interests, and I like to tie things together,” she said.
That is apparent in her academic work, which has been highly influenced by her experience with the Sharpe program. Bulman’s freshman Sharpe seminar focused on citizenship in the community. A public policy major and finance minor, Bulman is now writing a thesis on civic engagement in two types of local governments: those with a mayor/council system and those with a council/manager system.
“I’m using 40 case studies and I’m looking at the kinds of opportunities localities have for citizens to engage in government. Do they have neighborhood groups? How are they organized? I’m looking for tendencies across the two different forms,” she said. “I am fascinated by what makes people engaged and what makes them care. It’s a powerful resource.”
As for what makes Bulman engaged, she said it depends on where she is.
“Hunger has always been an issue that I’ve really been able to mobilize myself around and get involved with,” she said.
Because hunger is a universal need, it is a very accessible issue, Bulman said.
“It’s really easy to talk about and really easy to say that there’s a need here, can you help,” she said. “We have enough resources to feed everyone on the planet, and we don’t use them properly. Again, it’s just figuring out the puzzle pieces and getting them together.”
Other needs, like homelessness, may also be addressed by better utilizing current resources like the Campus Kitchen does, Bulman added.
“There are plenty of easy changes that you could make to make more resources for other people,” she said. “I don’t know how to tie that into formal policy yet, but I’m working on it.”
Joel Schwartz, director of the Charles Center, said in recommending Bulman for the Monroe Prize that he usually sees undergraduates approach public service “either from a passion for democratic engagement and a personal commitment for social justice, or from an analytic and objective perspective that seeks to bring the techniques of the social sciences to bear on social problems.”
“Molly is nearly unique in her balanced dedication to both of these approaches to public service,” he said in the recommendation. “On the one hand, as a beginning freshman she signed up to work on three political campaigns before classes even began and she has taken the lead to organize voter registration drives and a rally on campus in support of health care reform. But she has also regularly put herself in a position to use her quantitative and policy analysis skills to serve the public. For example, she has done work on housing policy and is currently working on an honors thesis that seeks to understand why some municipalities encourage citizen participation more than others. The balance that Molly has maintained between a personal and a more academic approach to service is truly impressive.”
Bulman, who hopes to one day attend graduate school for urban planning, said that she was “extremely excited” when she found out that she had been selected for the Monroe Prize – and even more so when she found out that she would share the stage with Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates ’65, who will serve as this year’s Charter Day speaker.
She humbly credited the programs and organizations – like Sharpe and the Campus Kitchen – for her being selected for the prize.
“Those are incredible programs that I don’t think I could have found anywhere else but William & Mary,” she said. “I am so thankful and so thrilled to be able to address an audience on Charter Day and be able to share my thoughts and my experiences. I’m incredibly excited."