Carrying on the legacy of University alumna Kurt Giessler

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The Kurt Giessler Foundation for Youth Achievement is an organization that supports young scholars between the ages of 12 and 20 and allows them to pursue their educational interests through the provision of grants. The grants are used towards funding self-directed educational projects that can take on a myriad of different educational foci that include, but are not limited to, undertakings of an inventive, entrepreneurial, or charitable nature. The catch: none of the projects can be school related and must be strictly independent of any influence from the classroom.

Kurt Giessler, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus, is remembered as an outstanding and influential individual who impacted those around him through his zest for life and optimism. Giessler was born in 1980 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Early on in his life, he faced multiple medical complications that caused him to receive reconstructive heart surgery as well as two double lung transplants in 2001 and 2007. Despite the physical drawbacks he experienced due to his medical issues, Giessler applied himself in all other ways possible and developed a fervent passion towards his education. Giessler “knew his days were numbered and, rather than cower from his fate, he extended himself as much as possible,” remarked his good friend, Phi Kappa Theta fraternity brother and organizer of the Kurt Giessler Memorial, Igino Cafiero (CIT ‘06). “He always tried to say yes, and lived very deliberately,” Cafiero said.

At Carnegie Mellon University, Giessler majored in mechanical engineering and was highly involved in math and the sciences. His older sister, Kristen Giessler, served as his Orientation Counselor in his freshman year at the University, an experience on which she reflected with fond memories. Upon graduation, he moved back to Massachusetts, where his inextinguishable excitement for education led him to become a high school engineering teacher. Giessler believed that, “there is no greater determinant of one’s quality of life than their education,” which is quoted on the banner of the foundation’s website. Through this belief and his contagious enthusiasm, he was able to impact his students by encouraging them to explore beyond the walls of the classroom and develop their own unique educational interests. The idea for the Kurt Giessler Foundation first arose when in 2010, Kurt learned that his chronic lung rejection had resurfaced and that there were no alternative solutions to cure him. The Foundation was launched with the support of Giessler’s sister, Kristen Giessler, and their parents after his passing. The website clearly defines Kurt’s mission as aiming to “support youth in generating and achieving long term ventures by providing the resources necessary to reach those goals and creating a reward system that acknowledges those who succeed.” With the support of friends, family, and other individuals who believe in Giessler’s cause, the organization is “strictly run by volunteers, seasoned professionals, and educated young adults,” as stated on the website.

Alex Hanna (CIT ‘10), organizer of the Deloitte campaign which raised thousands of dollars for the foundation, and Cafiero are two individuals who were a part of the Carnegie Mellon University community and whose lives were touched by the influence of Giessler. Giessler was just a few years older than Hanna and had just graduated with his mechanical engineering degree when he began school in Pittsburgh. He first got involved with the Kurt Giessler Foundation a few years back when he participated as a contributor in an annual fundraising event hosted by Phi Kappa Theta alumni. Since then, he has coordinated donations to help raise money for the foundation as well as contributing to the grant selection process for prospective recipients.

Hanna remembers Kurt as someone who, “carried a sense of charisma that made you feel as if you were the only person in the room when talking to him. I’ll never forget his eternal optimism. No matter the situation, his calming presence and soothing smirk always let me know that it would be alright,” Hanna said.

Cafiero describes Giessler as “a man of principle with seemingly infinite patience and a quick sense of humor.” Cafiero also contributes to the foundation through fundraising efforts from the west coast. He described the annual event as an opportunity that allows anyone who knew Giessler and other Carnegie Mellon alumni to, “spend time together … and laugh and talk about Kurt as if he were among us.”

Grant recipients are chosen through the foundation’s application process, for which they have to answer two questions: “How will this initiative benefit you as an individual?” and “How will this initiative benefit society?”

Students who are selected can receive upwards of $2000 in grant money for their respective projects. The grants allow the foundation to achieve Kurt’s purpose for creating it in the first place, which is to, in his own words, “challenge the youth of tomorrow, to fund their projects, and to reward them for success.”

For example, Kevin Johnson was an 18 year old when he was selected in 2015 for his idea to develop an advanced wireless theatrical light control system called LightMate, for which he received a $2,100 grant. When his application was selected by the foundation, he had created prototypes to prove that his idea was plausible, and had already evaluated what he could do to continue developing his project. Katie Curran is another example of a student who was awarded $1,000 as a part of the foundation’s Prize for Achievement for her accomplishments with Project Next Generation. According to the website, the award is meant to “recognize individuals who are already making an impact on their community.” Curran’s Project Next Generation is a volunteer and leadership education organization that was created with the intention of, “[inspiring] the rising generation of young leaders to be actively involved in their community,” as stated in her nomination letter.

There are a number of different ways that we can continue Kurt Giessler’s legacy on the Carnegie Mellon campus. The foundation is constantly looking for qualified applicants. Members of the Carnegie Mellon University community can reach out to local Pittsburgh high schools that may need funding for engineering or robotics programs, or refer prospective applicants to members of the foundation. Anything, even simple contributions in the form of small donations, can be helpful to remembering Giessler and supporting the cause that he held so dear to his heart. To find out more about the mission, or to stay notified of upcoming news and events, visit