January/February 2008
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Rhodes College Arch
More than 80 percent of Rhodes College students participate in off-campus service projects through the Kinney Program.

 

Into the Streets

Rhodes College’s campus in midtown Memphis, Tennessee, has a fence around it—a literal dividing line between the college and the city. But that doesn’t mean the 1,700 students at Rhodes live on an island, cut off from the community outside. In fact, just the opposite is true. Rhodes has had remarkable success in cultivating a culture of service and making community-based scholarship a staple of students’ lives.

“Service is just what you do—it’s the norm. Students pick up on that when they first come to visit,” explains Tiffany Merritt, Rhodes’ community service coordinator. Expectations of and opportunities for service are woven into departments, offices, and even into the curriculum itself, which was recently revamped to include skills—such as historical analysis—that can be satisfied in part through service learning. And while Rhodes administrators like Dean of Academic Affairs Robert Strandburg are proud of the curriculum and culture on campus, there isn’t the need for much “selling.” “[Our culture of service] kind of markets itself,” Strandburg says. “It’s part of what makes students want to come to Rhodes.”

Roots of Service

This culture of service took root in the 1950s, when Laurence Kinney, a Biblical Studies professor, wrote a proposal for a student service program. During the 1956-7 school year, Kinney received a grant from the Danforth Foundation to put the program into action. Originally call the Danforth Program, it was renamed for Kinney in the 1960s, and has operated continuously as a student-run program since then. Today, surveys indicate that more than 80 percent of Rhodes students participate in service projects through the Kinney Program, which completed the first college-sponsored Habitat for Humanity house in the mid-1980s, and opened a student-run community soup kitchen in 1988 that hasn’t missed serving a Tuesday meal since its first week.  

The Kinney Program operates as an umbrella, covering a wide range of community service sites and situations. Merritt, as community service coordinator, helps oversee the program, but students communicate with service-site administrators, organize “service plunge” activities to encourage newcomers to try out different types of volunteer work, and generally keep Kinney going. About fifteen students a year volunteer to be Kinney Coordinators, while thirty-five commit to being site coordinators. It’s a tremendous commitment, Merritt says, but one that the students willingly take on. “I don’t have to do a lot of convincing students to get involved. I can instead dig deeper with how their gifts and talents can line up with the needs of the community,” she says.

Rhodes College Students Helping in community
Rhodes' "Foundations" curriculum requires students to complete an academic class with an "outside-the-gates" experiential learning component.

Outside the Gates

Adding a focus on service learning—service that is deliberately connected to classroom objectives and includes instruction and reflection—was a natural extension of the activities already happening at Rhodes. In 1992, the Bonner Foundation established a Bonner Scholars program at Rhodes. The intensive four-year scholarship program blends service with academic work. During the 1999-2000 academic year, administrators started planning a new curriculum to move away from distribution requirements (i.e. three social science classes, two mathematics, etc.) and toward twelve “foundations” of liberal learning: critical analysis, excellence in written communication, analytic interpretation, and quantitative analysis, among others. This “Foundations” curriculum was finalized by faculty in 2004 and fully implemented in 2007. The eleventh foundation, "participation in activities that broaden connections between the classroom and the world,” requires that students take part in an “outside-the-gates” experiential learning activity and connect it to their classroom work, with faculty guidance. “Students often get inspired to pursue an F11 requirement through something they’ve first done at a Kinney site,” Strandburg says. “The Kinney program and this new curriculum mutually reinforce each other.”

Many students also develop increasing depth in their community-based activities as they advance through their college careers, Merritt adds. “A student might do the ‘adopt-a-friend’ program at the elementary school, and keep the same friend throughout their four years. That might spur them to ask about educational inequality, and then they’ll be going to a Board of Education meeting to talk about an issue, and then think about adding an education minor.”

Campus-community Connections

We talk a lot about how to mitigate the effect of having a fence around the college, and become part of our local community,” says Suzanne Bonefas, director of special projects in the Office of College Relations. That’s one reason Rhodes developed what it calls a “Learning Corridor,” a partnership with local schools and neighborhoods to extend learning past the physical boundaries of the campus.

One Rhodes student, for example, volunteered to work with children at a Learning Corridor partner elementary school. She noticed that the school was located on a busy street without many crosswalks or crossing guards and lacked enough safe routes into the building. She analyzed the situation, documented the safety features that did exist, compared them to those at other schools in the area, and drew up a list of proposed changes for the city council. City engineers put in more crosswalks, and the student’s report was attached to a grant proposal at the state level for funding to enact more of her suggestions.

Some faculty develop their own community connections. Susan Crisafulli, who teaches in the English department, decided to turn her first-year writing seminar into a service-learning course on environmental issues for the spring semester. She set up partnerships with eight Memphis organizations that work on issues of sustainability and environmental stewardship, where students will each spend twenty hours engaged in service and analysis. She hopes that in addition to serving within the community and learning to write persuasively about the experience, her students will begin to understand the complexity of environmental problems.

Scholarships to Fellowships

Because there are so many opportunities for service participation at Rhodes, the college’s next step is to integrate them with academics for more students. “We want to be more systematic in the way students and faculty are doing their community-based learning,” Bonefas explains. Recently, Rhodes administrators implemented an initiative called Scholarships to Fellowships, under which all merit scholarships will be converted to fellowships. Starting in fall 2008, all students who receive merit-based financial aid will participate in structured out-of-classroom activities that complement their classroom learning. The fellowships will be loosely modeled after the Bonner Scholars program, but will allow many more students to experience the benefits of service learning for a summer, semester, or year.  

While Rhodes’ small student body is a significant advantage in encouraging college-wide engagement in service, Strandburg says any school willing to devote the resources and infrastructure could build similar momentum, especially by adding service-learning courses. And Merritt adds that while a larger school’s service program would undoubtedly look different from Rhodes’, it could incorporate some of the most successful features, such as the peer-run structure of the Kinney Program. “Students trust each other and are really hungry to feel like they are part of the community,” she says. “They say they feel like they are Memphians—not just people who went to Rhodes.”


AAC&U’s Core Commitments program focuses on new ways of engaging students with core questions about their ethical responsibilities to self and others. The Center for Liberal Education and Civic Engagement, a partnership between AAC&U and Campus Compact, seeks to deepen understandings of the relationships between liberal education and civic engagement. Visit AAC&U’s civic engagement resources Web page for more information about civic engagement in higher education.

Read Liberal Education’s special Bonner Series on Civic Engagement articles.

 
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