Interview With Bill Burks ’55, A Founder of Princeton AlumniCorps
Bill Burks ’55 is one of the founders and an active supporter of Princeton AlumniCorps. Bill majored in biology at Princeton, and earned his M.D. from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. After a five-year surgical residency in New York City, Bill served two years in the Army Medical Corps, including a year as a trauma surgeon in Vietnam. He practiced general and vascular surgery in Princeton from 1966 until his retirement in 1998. Since 1993, he has been a Trustee of the Princeton Area Community Foundation, and served as Chairman for nine years (1997 to 2005). He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the Princeton Healthcare System.
Q: How and why did you get involved with Princeton AlumniCorps?
BB: I joined Princeton AlumniCorps (then Princeton Project 55) in the beginning in Washington, when Ralph Nader’s speech really hit a responsive chord in many of us. It was such an attractive concept for us to use our contacts to assist new graduates, who were eager and enthusiastic, into worthwhile career pursuits.
Q: What role do you think Princeton AlumniCorps plays in the Princeton community and in communities across the country?
I think the key benefit of the PP55 Fellowship Program is the opportunity to get extraordinary people into community service and volunteerism, and the benefits that then flow into the organization and communities. Students also benefit, as it gives them the opportunity to work with a mentor and a chance to experience a lot more in the early stages of their career than they might have done on their own.
Q: You were a founding member of Princeton AlumniCorps – then Princeton Project 55 – in 1989. How do you think the organization has changed in the past 22 years?
BB: I think the organization has changed dramatically but without losing sight of its original mission. After the first couple of years I wasn’t so much involved but there were a very hard-core group of classmates who supported the concept and made it work. The organization has become an important part of Princeton University’s mission and it has been strongly supported by Presidents Shapiro and Tilghmen.
The concept has spread to other colleges and the membership and leadership has changed to include other classes. Princeton AlumniCorps has evolved into a self-sustaining organization and is raising endowment funds to sustain it long term. Its effectiveness with young people is unquestioned and many PP55 interns have become very successful in their careers and their involvement in civic causes.
Q: Towards the end of your career, and since retiring, you’ve been very involved with the Princeton Community Foundation, can you share a little bit about that?
BB: I started working with the Princeton Community Foundation in 1993 when I received a call from a ’55 classmate recommending the organization to me. When I retired from my surgical practice in 1998, I had become Chairman of the Community Foundation Board and since then I have worked there 4-5 days a week. The Foundation works to promote philanthropy in central New Jersey by building permanent endowment as well as flexible funds which support not-for-profit organizations. We continue to grow with over $75 million in assets and are making over $3 million in grants per year.
Q: What are the most important things you look for when supporting an organization or serving on a nonprofit board?
BB: I have always enjoyed working with people and feeling productive. I loved my surgical practice and it was emotionally rewarding. With respect to community service I look for organizations which stimulate my interest and where I think I can make a difference. When my children were in school I served on their school boards for 10 years; during my years of surgical practice I served on the hospital Board and recently have had the opportunity to go back on the board as Princeton is building a new hospital and the changes are fascinating. And my work with the Community Foundation has been a genuine pleasure as I believe totally in the concept and have learned a great deal about the not-for-profit world.
Q: Princeton AlumniCorps just placed our newest class of 54 PP55 fellows. What advice do you have for them?
BB: As I think the new fellows would already be aware, the fellowship program is an incredible opportunity for them to realize some of their goals and to be more productive straight out of college. It’s a unique way for them to use the gifts that they have been given much earlier in their careers, a chance to make new contacts, and for many fellows, an opportunity to secure longer-term employment at the end of their fellowship year.
New fellows should realize the opportunity that has been given to them and make the best use of their talents to stimulate their partnering organizations. It is a two way relationship, and organizations also have the chance to get a lot out of these kids, who are creative, hard-working and wonderful.
Q: What is your hope for the future of Princeton AlumniCorps?
BB: When Princeton Project 55 was first established, I don’t think we realized its full potential. At that stage, we had been out of college for about 30 years, and many of us had children at college or some recent graduates. Our hope was to give our children the best, and we asked: How can we give them the best start? How can we give them the opportunity to best use their talents?
I think the original premise of Princeton Project 55 is so solid, and I trust that the organization will continue to grow and evolve with this in mind. My hope for Princeton AlumniCorps is that they will play a significant role in maximizing the incredible talent pool of university students who avail themselves of this opportunity.
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