Rooted in Service: Faculty Director Travis Wright’s Path to the Morgridge Center

Dr. Travis Wright has known the power of public service his whole life. 

The associate professor in counseling psychology has over a decade of experience in community-engaged work – service which is rooted in his own experience. Wright, a Tennessee native, grew up in a family that experienced housing insecurity and economic instability. 

Through experiencing community support systems first hand, Wright learned the importance of service to help people during their most challenging times.

Travis Wright (Photo by Sarah Maughan UW-Madison)

 “Service and being connected to other people have both saved my life and taught me how strong I can be,” he says. “If we can hold both of these perspectives at the same time, we’ll look for opportunities to give but also take advantage of opportunities to learn.” 

Wright hopes to capitalize on creating those service-learning opportunities for campus and the broader community as the next faculty director at the Morgridge Center for Public Service. 

Wright, who has worked at UW-Madison since 2012, took over the faculty director role at the start of February. He replaced Dr. Earlise Ward, who stepped down from the position to return as a full-time faculty member in the School of Nursing. 

“The idea that we all have something to give is an organizing principle in my life,” Wright says. “I love the role the Morgridge Center plays in our community, and I’m really excited to help advance the notion of service on campus. I want to ensure we are translating the Wisconsin Idea into impact.”

Wright received his bachelor of arts at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where he also received the national Harry S. Truman Scholarship. He earned his master’s of education and doctorate of education in human development and psychology from Harvard University. 

Before entering academia, Wright was a leader in the national youth and community service movement, working as manager of youth and education outreach for the National Volunteer Center Network. He also worked as a school-based mental health counselor, public school teacher and early childhood educator in Washington, D.C. and Boston. In 2016, he was on leave from UW to serve as the deputy chief of early childhood education for Washington, D.C. Public Schools.

“Others have served me in times of my life when I really needed a hand, and serving others has really created pathways for me to grow into this career and to have a fuller life,” Wright says. “There are many reasons I should not be where I am today, but serving others has allowed me to experience firsthand my ability to make a difference in the world and fostered in me the courage to take a stand and follow my convictions.”

Wright’s ability to bridge campus and community in advancement of the Wisconsin Idea is evident in his work on campus as the founder of BASES (Building Academic, Social, and Emotional Supports) – a community-based intervention program designed to provide support and mentorship for young children experiencing homelessness. 

He developed the program through the UW-Madison Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, which is a competitive grant awarded to innovative projects that foster public engagement. Through BASES, over 400 students have served more than 450 children experiencing homelessness, providing upwards of 9,000 hours of direct community service. 

“In my own work, I’m trying to shift society’s perspective on people who are navigating various forms of social stigma, social inequity and social injustice,” he says. “Instead of locating problems in the person, I think we have to look at how individuals are demonstrating resilience, how they’re being strong, so that we can support and empower them to be better and do better, and then work to change the systems around them which are making it harder for them to flourish.”

All participating students in BASES must also take Wright’s Community-based Learning course – developed in collaboration with the Morgridge Center – which led him to receive the Community-Based Scholarship Award from the School of Education in 2017. 

Wright hopes to bring his personal and professional experiences with him to the Morgridge Center to think intentionally about the impact UW-Madison has on the community and how students’ community-engagement work can be extended beyond their short time on campus. 

“I’m excited to collaborate with such an audacious, empowered, kind and passionate group of people,” Wright says. “My job isn’t to start the movement – the movement has already started. My job is to fan the flames.”