For Rob Rutenbar, United Way Educational Efforts Resonate Deeply

After his mother passed away in 2013, Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research and chair of this year’s Pitt United Way Campaign, received some of the best advice he ever got.

Rob Rutenbar“I had some friends who said you can sit around feeling sorry for yourself, or a much better way of moving forward would be to go out and do something for somebody else,” Rutenbar recalled.

Following that advice led him to Villa El Salvador, a coastal district on the outskirts of Lima in Peru, where he served for a week as a teacher’s aide for a roomful of 5-year-olds.

‘There’s Rob and a pencil.’

“If you think being in a different locale means that you have lousy cellular service, try being in a place with no heat and no hot water,” Rutenbar said of Villa El Salvador, which experienced years of terroist violence by the Shining Path rebel group in the 1980s and early 1990s. “It’s the only place I have ever stayed that has both barbed wire and an electric fence.”

Language was a barrier; Rutenbar spoke no Spanish, the teachers didn’t speak English and some of the children spoke only Quechua, a language family indigenous to the people of the region. “The nice teacher told me what to do and how to do it with a lot of hand signals,” said Rutenbar, who came to be known as ‘Dr. Roberto’ (though his given name is Robin).

How to donate

The Pitt United Way Campaign website has information about how you can donate to support the Pitt campaign.

Options to give include online through a recurring payroll deduction or a one-time gift; or by credit card, check or pledge form.

Donors can contribute to the United Way Impact Fund, through which the United Way targets funds to support the local agencies that serve populations facing the most critical current needs, or donors can instead choose from hundreds of local and regional organizations to direct their contributions toward.

One memory that stands out to Rutenbar is a lesson that required 20 copies of pictures of the planets. Using a template, he used tracing paper to make copies. “Because there’s no copier and no computer, there’s Rob and a pencil,” he said.

“It was amazing to see how much effort the Peruvian government was putting into this sort of Head Start program for these kids in an incredibly economically tough area, just getting them in the game,” he said, calling the experience one of the most rewarding of his life.

He believes the United Way can produce similar outcomes. “They’re incredibly focused on connecting opportunities to kids who are in geographically difficult places, who are in difficult family circumstances, untoward financial circumstances,” he said. “I find that very appealing.”

Making education more broadly accessible

Rutenbar has broad experience delivering education to students in geographically disparate places. While he served as head of the computer science department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he led a partnership with Coursera to launch one of the first massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Currently, Rutenbar is using the platform to teach a pair of courses that has 22,000 registrants. “I continue to be seriously interested in other ways of getting great university content Pitt has to the places and people who would otherwise never be able to access it,” he said.

Digital resources are one way to broaden access to education, but he sees other opportunities for community engagement by pushing Pitt’s efforts beyond the formal boundaries of campus.

“The place-based strategies and Community Engagement Centers are a spectacularly good idea,” he said. “One of the great things about Pitt is you can find people whose research is trying to connect with the community and problems the community has and bring those problems back into the academy to look for solutions."

Rutenbar noted the United Way’s educational activities resonate most deeply with him. As campaign chair, one of the things he would most like to see this year is a focus beyond the dollar amount.

“Dollars are important to focusing on engagement and how many people participate, but a concomitantly good outcome is people understanding that giving doesn’t hurt,” he said. “Even a dollar gets people in the frame of mind that maybe I can do that again. That would be a lovely thing.”