Kenyon College will launch its new office of community engagement with Jennifer C. Odenweller as its director.
Odenweller, the executive director of United Way of Knox County, will join Kenyon on Oct. 1. Initially working from a campus office, Odenweller will move to the Buckeye building in downtown Mount Vernon after renovation work there is complete in about a year.
The community engagement office is an initiative of President Sean Decatur, who envisions the center as a Knox County resource, linking Kenyon students to community service opportunities, regional internships and coursework in concert with business, industry, and nonprofit, social service organizations. Kenyon faculty and staff, most of whom live in the county, will enjoy more opportunities to interact with local institutions.
“Jen Odenweller is the ideal leader for the important new mission of strengthening the bridge between Kenyon and our larger community,” Decatur said. “Our students will take advantage of amplified opportunities to learn and grow with the help of our neighbors, which is a key part of their preparation for productive citizenship. And this is a two-way street because we believe Kenyon can do more to benefit the people of Knox County.”
Odenweller joined the local United Way as its first full-time director in 2000. She doubled the annual community investment campaign during that time to $1,075,000 in 2014. She convened Knox County leaders in 2013 to create a shared vision for community-wide health, education, economic growth and preservation.
“I believe that partnerships change outcomes,” Odenweller said. “Partnerships focused on developing future leaders and responsible community members are no different than partnerships formed for fundraising to elevate the quality of life in the community. This opportunity to benefit all of us — to make a difference in the lives of students who come to Knox County for a liberal arts education at Kenyon and to make a difference in the lives of those who are already members of our community – is very exciting.
“This adds breadth to my mission in life of building a strong community and utilizing our resources to make the most impact we can in a meaningful way. This feels like a natural fit and a natural extension of what I do.”
Odenweller will be the point of contact and an important “face of Kenyon” in the community, Provost Joseph Klesner said. “The community engagement center is an opportunity for students and faculty to undertake community-engaged learning and to do meaningful work in the community,” he said. “Jen will be the liaison between the faculty, staff and students and people throughout the county.”
Odenweller has demonstrated her leadership and strategic-planning skills at United Way, where she has shown “a real capacity to build an organization’s strength and profile and greatly increase the impact in the community,” Klesner said. “She is a very good listener. And she gets things done.”
Sam Barone ’72, executive director of the Community Foundation of Mount Vernon & Knox County, said Odenweller has the experience, skills and temperament to build effective partnerships between Kenyon and the community at large. “Jen's extraordinary management and interpersonal skills will serve Kenyon well as it launches the most ambitious community engagement venture in its history,” Barone said.
“President Decatur clearly understands that Kenyon’s growing presence in the Knox County community will enhance mutual understanding and respect, while expanding learning opportunities for Kenyon students, faculty and community members alike,” Barone said. “This is truly a transformative event in a nearly two century-old saga of town-gown relations.”
Odenweller has a good sense of how greater collaboration between the Kenyon and the local community can be mutually beneficial, said Jan Thomas, associate provost at Kenyon and professor of sociology, who led the job search. “Jen has great energy and enthusiasm, and she is committed to helping create experiences that will have real impact in the lives of students, faculty and community members.”
Stepping away from United Way is emotional for Odenweller, but she will leave a strong organization “in a great place.” She launched a $500,000 campaign on her second day on the job. Since that time, United Way has continued to add investors as well as partnerships with community organizations with the goal of creating “collaborative impact.” Odenweller also has taken an active role across the community on a number of boards and as part of several community-development initiatives.
Before joining United Way of Knox County, Odenweller worked for United Way of Central Ohio in Columbus as a campaign chair assistant and special events coordinator, from 1997 to 2000. She is a graduate of the Ohio State University. Odenweller grew up in Mount Vernon. She and her husband, Marc, who is a certified public accountant, appreciate the rural and rich community life found in Knox County.
And she expects to make a difference. “In anything I do, I hit the ground running,” she said.
Kenyon acquired the Buckeye building earlier this year, with the help of support from the Ariel Foundation and the Community Foundation of Mount Vernon & Knox County. In addition to the community engagement office, the building will house classroom, studio and office space for film study. The nonprofit Science Play-Space Initiative — the children’s science-based attraction also known as SPI Spot — also will make its home in the building.