Carnegie Mellon University

Transformational Change

Sarah Ceurvorst Connects Students with Communities to Create Positive Change

written by
Heidi Opdyke & Cally Jamis Vennare

Sarah Ceurvorst has always believed in the powerful combination of the arts, humanities and social sciences to create transformational change.

A 2013 Carnegie Mellon alumna possessing a bachelor's degree of humanities and arts with concentrations in psychology and art, Ceurvorst is a practicing artist and art teacher at The Ellis School. She traveled to Thailand as a Fulbright scholar after graduation before returning to Pittsburgh where she has worked with community partners to create youth programming.

When the opportunity arose to serve as inaugural director of LEAP (which stands for Leadership, Excellence, Access and Persistence), she quite literally leapt at the chance to direct a program that was “tailored to experiences that I loved at CMU” by empowering under-resourced high school students to become agents of social change.

"It does feel like this incredibly fortuitous opportunity," said Ceurvorst with a smile. "When I think back on my time at CMU studying humanities at Dietrich College, I learned about human behavior, human thoughts, how our brains work and how we act and are motivated. In the College of Fine Arts, I learned how to express all of that. Ultimately, the BXA Intercollege Degree Programs at CMU allowed me to think divergently and form connections where there weren’t any beforehand. It really taught me how to be a brave thinker and a brave maker … and how to forge my own path. And that is really what LEAP is all about."

Piloted in the fall of 2021, LEAP is an educational partnership between Carnegie Mellon's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, its College of Fine Arts and City Charter High School that provides a supportive, non-hierarchical learning environment for high school students to creatively engage with issues of equity and justice in their lives and communities.

In past LEAP workshops, Jane McCafferty, a professor of English and director of CMU's Creative Writing Program, had students working on poetry; while Kody Manke, an assistant professor of psychology, and Kevin Jarbo, an assistant professor in social and decision sciences, helped students understand how psychology can play a role in community work, change and social justice.

Students playing djembes and other African-style drums.
Ceurvorst facilitating discussion with students as she points to white kraft paper.
Ceurvorst talking with a student, as she shows her the book she bound by hand.

These and other LEAP workshops have "opened doors and horizons" for City Charter students, as faculty, alumni and community members openly share their approaches to art and activism.

"I learned how building networks and having a community in art is very important," said City Charter graduate and LEAP alumna Rai Venturino. "They showed me how it is possible to have a successful career in art, history and the humanities."

"The most amazing thing about LEAP is it helps you see what you might be missing right before your eyes," said City Charter graduate and LEAP alumna, Jahzia Ely. Getting to meet Art Professor Jon Rubin and learn about Conflict Kitchen, a culinary art project that served food from countries that the U.S. is in conflict with, "was a creative way to help people come together in one community to learn from each other."

Tapping the existing wealth of community knowledge and resources inside, and outside, the walls of CMU is yet another valuable LEAP deliverable. "It’s exciting because our LEAP students are bringing so much to the table. Yes, there is a wealth of knowledge within the CMU community, but there is also great knowledge that is not housed within the walls of this campus," Ceurvorst emphasized.

"We are not just sharing what CMU has, but are acknowledging all the assets, the resources and the knowledge that these kids possess before they step on our campus. It is a really wonderful experience of learning alongside the students. So, my CMU education gets to continue … but instead of being from my professors, it’s from my students."

Sarah Ceurvorst

Listening and asking questions. Striving for something new. Daring to think of the world in a different way. Fostering lasting friendships and collaborations within the CMU community. "All of this has made my life richer," shared Ceurvorst. "And that’s what CMU professors, alumni and students are doing all the time. It’s so exciting, because I get to learn so much more than I knew was out there in the world … and share that knowledge with others."