PPL major builds a foundation for success

Look out world

There’s the obvious stuff that earned Heather Skolnick recognition at Binghamton: Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society, Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society, Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and making the dean’s list every year she’s been enrolled at Binghamton University. She’s even the undergraduate representative on the Task Force on Undergraduate Education for the Digital Generation.

But to win the President’s Award for Student Excellence and the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence, there needs to be something more, an unusual commitment to life beyond books and the classroom.

Since she was in high school, Skolnick has traveled the world building homes for people in need through Habitat for Humanity and the Fuller Center for Housing. She’s built homes near Bayside, Queens, where she grew up, in Binghamton, up and down the East Coast, in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, in Armenia, and in Indonesia after a tsunami in 2010.

“I guess it’s kinda my thing,” the philosophy, politics and law major says a bit sheepishly. “I really like that the program gives you the opportunity to build and interact with the future homeowners. You’re not just building with contractors. It’s unlike any other type of community service because you can just see how grateful the family is that you’re there helping them.”

“And a house is a basic necessity. Kids can’t do well in school if they don’t have a stable home to sleep in and study in.”

Not surprisingly, Skolnick, the president of Binghamton University’s chapter of Broome County Habitat for Humanity, plans to keep building after graduation, at least in the short term. This summer she’s riding the Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure from Seattle to Washington, D.C. With a group of about 20, she’s covering 50 to 100 miles a day and stopping once a week to help build a house.

In the fall Skolnick has an offer to work in corporate philanthropy, though she refused to say at which company or even in which city for fear of jinxing it. She plans to work the next couple of years while preparing for law school, where she wants to study nonprofit law.

Assistant Professor Stephen Ortiz, who had Skolnick in his Latinos in 20th Century U.S. and U.S. Diplomacy in 20th Century classes, isn’t surprised she’s pursuing a branch of law that isn’t the most lucrative. He pointed out that Skolnick wasn’t required to take his Latinos in 20th Century U.S.; she did so to help her community service, which goes beyond building to include volunteering for political campaigns in her hometown, where Latinos are a growing population.

“She wanted to go beyond just going out and speaking the language,” Ortiz says. “She wants to understand long-term issues facing the community. She knew it would be an important tool for her and her service work. That is a very forward way of thinking.”

Ortiz believes Skolnick’s exceptional intelligence, strong work ethic, passion and engaging personality, “which are traits that often don’t go together,” will drive her beyond corporate work and into the heart of where change happens.

“She might disagree with me now, but I really see her moving into politics, either electoral or policy formation at some level because it’s a way to effect change around her,” he says. “She’s someone we will hear a lot from in this state.”

When it’s pointed out to Skolnick that she could make a lot more money in another field of law, she responds quickly, “definitely,” and then smiles. “The understatement of the century. But this makes me happy, so it’s more worthwhile.”

As she looks to her future, Skolnick realizes that building homes will probably take a back seat to work.

“If my work schedule allows it, I’ll keep doing it. But international builds are two weeks, and I feel that having the opportunity to have two weeks off is a rarity now. But locally you can spend the weekend building. I do it at home all the time. It’s like a Saturday morning activity.”