COLUMBUS, Ohio — Throughout her career, Karen Bruns has been a people person. She cares — and it’s been evident, colleagues say, in every aspect of her professional life.
That work is being recognized this month as Bruns receives the national Distinguished Service Ruby Award, the highest and most prestigious award offered by Epsilon Sigma Phi, the professional organization of Extension personnel nationwide.
Bruns will accept the award at ESP’s annual conference in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, Oct. 4-7.
Until her retirement in March 2015, Bruns was the assistant director of Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of The Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, in charge of Family and Consumer Sciences programs. Since its inception, she has also been leader of OSU CARES, a program she helped create in 1996 to support collaborations between OSU Extension and the rest of Ohio State to develop outreach programs in communities throughout Ohio. Bruns continues to lead this program part-time in retirement.
“The work she has done with OSU CARES is a model for engaging Extension with a much broader perspective of the university,” said Greg Davis, interim director of OSU Extension. “It’s all about connecting diverse university resources with Extension to deliver new and innovative programs to people throughout the state.”
Bruns’ nominators for the Ruby Award wrote, “Dr. Karen Bruns has helped redefine university engagement nationally. Her involvement in developing the national Engagement Scholarship conference, the C. Peter Magrath Community Engagement Award and general recognition for engagement has helped elevate this work. At Ohio State, she is known for building partnerships, championing engagement and helping others see the potential of Extension.”
Bruns started her career as a program assistant in the Mercer County office of OSU Extension part-time during college. She became an FCS educator in Tuscarawas County in the early 1980s before moving to the Fairfield County office, where she was also a community development educator and county Extension director. In the mid-1990s, she started working half-time on the state level on an ad hoc committee on university outreach.
Throughout the years, whether it was in the communities she worked in or on campus, Bruns said she has most enjoyed helping people grow and learn.
“Whether they were low-income families or parents with children in the juvenile court system, or faculty at Ohio State who really wanted to apply their knowledge in the community but didn’t know how to get started — helping them learn skills and be successful is something I’m proud of,” Bruns said. “It’s a matter of helping people move to a different vision of what they want to achieve and helping them develop the skills and capacity to do that.”
Bruns said practicing the principles of outreach and engagement has remained the underpinning of her professional life.
“It’s about empowerment, shared leadership, shared decision-making, and involving people in the process,” she said. “This is what county Extension educators do, and it’s what I tried to do as assistant director and in every position I’ve held.”
But her outlook of Extension’s role in people’s lives has also shifted somewhat over the years, she said.
“I came into Extension with the perspective that we use knowledge to empower people, that we give people the answers — that we’re the ‘answer people’,” she said. “But as I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve seen that we are equally, if not more so, the ‘question people.’
“Our work focuses on the problems that are facing society, and we can do that better by asking questions to get to the root of those problems, and using our scholarship to help address those questions.”
At the Ruby Award address she will give to Extension professionals in Coeur d’ Alene, Bruns said she will also encourage her colleagues to examine their methods to pinpoint what is unique about the Extension model of education, and their evaluation tools to assure they are having a true impact on behavior change with clients. And she will advocate that they look beyond “outreach” as Extension’s role in today’s society.
“You cannot be successful in outreach unless you are fully engaged and are really part of the community,” Bruns said. “You need all three: scholarship, outreach and engagement.”
For more about Bruns’ career and the Ruby Award, see go.osu.edu/BrunsESP.