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Evan Bernstein '98: WCSU alumnus dedicates scholarship to mentors who challenged and educated him

Evan Bernstein arrived at Western in 1995 as a sophomore transfer student more passionate about playing lacrosse than pursuing studies in social work — but a dedicated WCSU professor who believed in him and a grandmother who inspired him helped to set him on the path to academic and professional success.

Today Bernstein serves as executive director of the American Friends of Migdal Ohr, the New York-based fundraising, marketing and branding arm of the Israeli nonprofit organization that provides day and residential care, instruction, training, youth camps and other outreach programs serving more than 10,000 at-risk youths in Israel.  He has never forgotten that he took some of the most important early steps of his journey during long visits at the Brooklyn home of his grandmother, Martha Epstein Bernstein, and during his classroom and field work under the guidance of WCSU Professor of Social Work Patti Ivry.

Bernstein recognized the importance of these two remarkable women as role models and mentors with his recent establishment of the Martha Bernstein and Patricia Ivry Social Work Scholarship for Women. The undergraduate scholarship award will be made annually to a woman majoring in social work and entering her senior year who demonstrates financial need, as well as strong potential to achieve academic and professional success.

Since earning his bachelor’s degree in social work at Western in 1998, Bernstein’s career has advanced with positions of increasing breadth and responsibility in management, administration and development at nonprofit organizations. From his early work at the United Way on hospital fundraising campaigns in New York City, he went on to serve as Arizona director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, director-level consultant for the fundraising firm Community Counseling Service, and national director of development for the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership. He also pursued studies while continuing his heavy work schedule to earn a master’s degree with a concentration in managing nonprofits from the Harvard University Extension School graduate program in management.

Bernstein’s professional success received recognition from his alma mater in 2007, when he received the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award from the WCSU School of Professional Studies. Yet he recalled in a recent interview that he entered Western in 1995 as a good but unmotivated student “more interested in athletics than academics. Then, Patti Ivry became very much a part of my life. The semester before my junior year, she sat me down and read me the riot act. I remember she told me, ‘You’re not living up to your full potential!’”

What followed was a more challenging program of studies in his final two years at Western that included challenging assignments in the field to work at an HIV clinic as a junior, and a group therapy program for substance abusers as a senior. His exemplary performance in the field and the classroom opened fresh opportunities for growth, such as his selection to represent the department at a national social work conference.

“Patti always wanted to make sure that I understand how social work is practiced in the field,” he said. “I embraced her ethic of hard work, and she enabled me to thrive in the program.”

Bernstein said he especially appreciated the personal attention in his studies at Western, noting the benefits of small class size and a quality faculty committed to ensuring that the university’s social work program made the highest academic standards. He cited Ivry as an example of that commitment.

“Patti’s goal has always been to keep Western’s social work program at the highest level,” he said. “She believes in public higher education and in Western, and her work over the years has affected thousands of people as the experience of her instruction and mentoring ripples out through Western’s graduates to the wider community and the world.”

If Ivry provided a motivational spark for Bernstein’s academic and professional progress, his paternal grandmother Martha Bernstein offered the role model of a first-generation Russian immigrant and lifelong resident of the Sheepshead Bay area who never let the financial hardships that denied her a chance for a college education to narrow her intellectual and cultural horizons. An administrative assistant to top executives who worked into her early 80s, Martha formed a close bond with her grandson Evan from an early age during family visits to her Brooklyn home.

“Since I was a small boy, she took on very much a superhero role for me,” he observed. “She was well read and an incredibly cultured woman. We would discuss Chagall, Renoir, Beethoven, Wagner and the Ring Cycle. It wasn’t just milk and cookies — going there, I would see New York and the world in a different way.

“She was always there for me at every stage of my life, in every way,” Bernstein said. “While I was studying at Western, she would take the train to Brewster once a month to visit me on campus, see my dorm, discuss my class on Berlioz.” After his graduation, he took his first job in New York and lived across the street from his grandmother in Brooklyn, and they remained close until her death two years ago.

“My grandmother and I had a very special bond,” he remarked. “She saw me grow in academic and professional and personal ways. She showed me culture and the world.”

Bernstein credits his two mentors for inspiring him to pursue his professional goal of attaining an executive position in nonprofit management, and to fulfill his personal commitment to the Jewish global community through the work of the Migdal Ohr organization in Israel. His vision in dedicating the WCSU scholarship to Ivry and his grandmother is that it will provide motivation for a new generation of Western students to fulfill their potential and their dreams as well.

“To be able to honor Patti and my grandmother in this way is very special to me,” he said. “Patti was the first person who made me believe in myself academically and professionally, and I would not be where I am today if it were not for her. My experience at Western set me up to succeed, and I have never forgotten that.”

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