by Ethan Day
The office closed five minutes ago, but Lauren Benz is still carefully answering the questions of the day's last customer. It's apparent she didn't get the office with a view atop University Union West by leaving work early.
The timid high school student turned executive director of ESCAPE Bus Company has taken in much of what the university has to offer, and Benz recognizes the importance of her last four years.
"Binghamton was good for me," she said. "I was an extremely nervous, awkward person, and coming to Binghamton helped me develop independence. All of the learning experiences I've had here have been amazing, and I'm going to walk out of here stronger and more of a leader than I was in high school."
Benz joined ESCAPE in her freshman year after a friend insisted they both apply for jobs at the SA-chartered, non-profit company. Her friend didn't get a job, but Benz did. She worked her way up from ticket sales, to comptroller in her sophomore and junior years, and finally to her current position as executive director.
"It's like a full-time job," she said with a laugh. "I spend all day doing work for ESCAPE, I finish around 8 o'clock and then I start my homework."
She's made it a point to include every aspect of the office's operations in her workload, from working the sales desk to negotiating contracts with bus companies. She also personally answers all the e-mail that comes into the office.
Jessica Kenyon, ESCAPE director for employee engagement, confirms what anyone might guess Benz is like as a leader.
"Lauren has helped me so much as both a boss and a friend and is always offering great advice," Kenyon said. "She is organized, works well under pressure, and is driven."
Between schoolwork and ESCAPE the Long Island native's day already appears full, but she somehow finds time for much more. In Harpur College's Psychology Department, Benz studies integrative neuroscience, and her achievement in the classroom led to an uncommon opportunity for an undergraduate student.
Benz works as an assistant in the Drugs and Development laboratory directed by Distinguished Professor of Psychology Linda Spear. It is unusual for an undergraduate student to be selected for work in a lab staffed by graduate students. The experience has been an important part of Benz's time at Binghamton.
"I've been exposed to so many different techniques, and I've been so hands-on working with the animals and helping the grad students run their experiments," she said. "It's more responsibility than people realize — even the simple tasks need to be carefully done."
Life at Binghamton for Benz has not been contained to just campus activities. For more than two years, she has worked with the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier (MHAST) as an at-risk youth mentor.
"I mentor a little girl which has been such an eye-opener for me," she said. "I'm definitely seeing a different part of the world that I've never been directly exposed to before, and it's heartbreaking."
Benz came across the program when she was involved with the Student Volunteer Center at the university. She was initially shocked that just miles from campus, families are living in decrepit homes with broken floors and no doors. The process to become a mentor was extensive but well worth it, she said.
In addition to the bus company, school, and mentoring, Benz is a member of the university's chapter of Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed service fraternity built on volunteerism, and was a tutor for Binghamton's GEAR UP Program. For her personal recreation, she is an avid runner, reader, and was once a member of Kickline Club.
With the ESCAPE office finally empty for the day, Benz sat next to the picture window and reflected on why she came to Binghamton, and how — after four years — it's suddenly time to move on.
"My dad loved Binghamton University, and even though he isn't alumni he always thought it was a place with lots of opportunities," she said. "The more I researched Binghamton the more I realized he was right — it had everything I was looking for, and coming here was the best decision I've ever made."
Benz is applying to graduate schools now, and intends to get a master's degree in public health. She wants the option of pursuing medical school, and sees a degree in public health as a good foundation. "Full" seems like an empty word to summarize Benz's time at Binghamton, but that may be the best way to describe it.
"I've made my way through this school," she said. "I've taken advantage of most opportunities that I've come across."
Last Updated: 9/9/16