Sylven Beck

Sylven Beck and Bruce LaVal

Sylven Beck has made a career of influencing others. But not in the way one might expect in the nation's capital. Even though she's not an elected official, a lobbyist or a high-powered attorney, her work is making an impact, just blocks away from the White House and throughout the United States.

For the last 30 years, Beck has been a professor of elementary education at the George Washington University, instructing and mentoring some of the brightest aspiring teachers in the country. Her role at GW's Graduate School of Education and Human Development (GSEHD) is definitively prolific: she inspires and teaches students who then inspire and teach others, their own elementary students. And after 30 years and hundreds of students, Beck's impact extends nationwide.

But her influence is not confined to the classroom. In 1996, Beck's mentor and former colleague, Dr. Gloria Horrworth, created the Sylven Seid Beck Endowment for Elementary Education at GW in honor of her capable successor. During the fund's first 10 years, various contributions allowed the fund to exceed $100,000 in value. The sources of these gifts included a planned gift by Beck's father-in-law, Paul Beck, and a year-long 10th anniversary celebration campaign, enabling the endowment to meet its goal.

In 2008, Beck's close family friend, Bruce LaVal, also designated a generous portion of his revocable living trust to benefit the Beck Endowment. "Sylven is an incredible person and does outstanding work at GW," says LaVal. "We all have people who inspire us and it's wonderful to be able to honor them and sustain their legacy through philanthropy."

Of course, Beck has had influences of her own that have shaped her life and career. One came in 1977 as she was applying to doctoral programs in the Washington area. She had a substantial number of transfer credits, but found that most schools were unwilling to accept all of them. That is, until she found a determined ally in GW Professor John Boswell.

"He said: ‘We're going to do this. The worst they can say is no, and if that happens we'll just think of something else,'" Beck recalls. In the end, GSEHD accepted every credit and Beck has been teaching at George Washington ever since.

Beck's life and career was again dramatically affected, 20 years later, on Sept. 11, 2001. She remembers standing in her kitchen as she watched the South Tower of the World Trade Center fall, knowing her brother was on the 104th floor.

"Losing my brother has changed the way I live. It's changed the way I treat people," Beck says. "You become more introspective, even retrospective. You become more forgiving."

Consequently, her approach to teaching is newly refined. Ever mindful to interlock life's lessons with her curricula, she shares her story of loss with her students, who comfort and cry with her. She encourages them to take the time to reflect, not only on the blessings of loved ones, but on the impact of their own lives.

"Over the last 10 years, I've realized it's not about the content," she says. "Yes, you've got to teach these aspiring teachers how to teach children science and math and how to read. But first and foremost, they have to teach their children to be kind to one another, to take care of one another. This is the most important lesson I could leave with my students."

Beck's lessons of kindness permeate her life. A member of the GW Heritage Society, she donates to the university for the same reason she teaches: because one person can have a tremendous impact on the lives of others.

Her strategy may not be typical in its approach, but it's exponential in its effect. She continues to teach from the heart and the Beck Endowment continues to provide much needed scholarship funds to deserving students. And the cycle of kindness endures.

"Everyone in this life can impact others for good," Beck says. "To what degree, is a decision entirely up to us."