Dani Biggs: Tapping into the Arts to Tell People’s Stories at NYC’s Public Theater

By Meagan Harkins

Seated in a pew at her childhood Baptist church in Central, N.J., Danielle Biggs gazed in wonder at the procession of the dance ministry, admiring the performers dressed in the flowing white skirts iconic to liturgical dance. “I was just mesmerized and entranced in that moment,” recalled Biggs, who was two years old at the time. She went home and spent that afternoon twirling and dancing around the house. Her parents soon signed her up for studio dance classes and for the church’s dance ministry, and Biggs has danced ever since.

Biggs, a 2015 recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Elon University  and currently the membership manager at New York City’s famed Public Theater, hails from a family steeped in music and the arts. Her father, Terence, plays the guitar and jammed in a band as a young adult. Her mother, Sharon, was a singer. Her brother performed in his high school and college marching band. Even her uncle is a dancer. “Creativity allows us to bond,” Biggs said. “All of us having that connecting point is really cool and magical. Our relationship is even further strengthened because of that lived and shared experience.”

At age three, Biggs enrolled in Jo-Ann’s Dance Studio in South Plainfield, N.J. From then on, she spent her evenings there or with her church’s dance ministry. In high school, she joined her school’s dance team and began competitive dance, spending weekends at competitions with All Star Dance Academy (now Artists in Motion). “It was a lot,” she said. “I had been balancing extracurriculars and school since kindergarten.”

Looking back on her dance studio days, Biggs now recognizes that, despite her love for dance, the environment had the potential to be toxic to a young person’s body image. She sometimes heard traumatizing comments about herself as far back as the age of eight. But she has learned to celebrate the fact that each and every dancer looks different—and stands out—even in identical costumes. “I always found it weird that the tights and jazz shoes didn’t match my skin color,” Biggs said. “But you should go that extra mile to stand out and be yourself. If that means you look different in a costume, you look exactly how you’re supposed to look.”

Dani Biggs decided to pursue her passion for dancing as a major at Elon University.

A New Stage
As a high school student, Biggs saw her “big sister” in dance ministry having the time of her life attending Elon University. Biggs travelled to North Carolina to tour the campus and fell in love with Elon’s botanical garden. “I could talk to a wall about how great Elon is,” noted Biggs, who now serves on Elon’s alumni board.

As a freshman at Elon, Biggs chose to major in marketing. After focusing on her studies—but desperately missing the life of a dancer—during the fall semester, she signed up for an improvisation dance class as an elective in the spring. Just weeks into class, the professor, who became a mentor, signed Biggs up to audition for Elon’s dance program.

“I went through the normal arc of trying to pick a career that made sense, becoming a dance performance and choreography and arts administration major,” she said. “Pick a major you’re passionate about, otherwise life is like hell. I think you really viscerally feel, when you are not in the right program, that something is wrong. When something is wrong, it feels like your guard is always up or like you’re not fully able to relax or settle into yourself or into a routine. That was a pro tip—to focus on something that brings me joy.”

From a lifetime of dance, Biggs has developed the confidence to make mistakes. Once, when she found herself in the middle of the floor without remembering the next step, an instructor yelled at her to keep going. “Even if you are messing up or there’s too much on your brain, you have to keep going,” she said.

“Based on [individual] personality and dancer, we each navigated towards whatever felt most freeing to us,” Biggs said. For her, this was West African dance. “It allows me to feel a direct line of connection to my ancestors, and it’s also just so fun. It’s reverent, but it’s also cardio. It’s all about community. Every single person in a West African dance production—from the drummers to the dancers to the audience—is seen as integral to the success of the show.”

Biggs fell in love with the joyful and loving culture of Ghana.

Discovering Ghana
In January of her junior year at Elon, Biggs traveled with fourteen students on an arts-focused study-abroad trip to Ghana. Her professor partnered the trip with his local dance company, Africa Alive, creating a group of about 40 performers who toured the country by bus. They also donated laptops, toys and school supplies to local villages along the way and orchestrated pep rallies at the schools.

To this day, she remains in contact with her classmates from the trip but often finds herself wondering about the young girls she met in Ghana. “I don’t know where those girls are now, but there is still such a strong sense of love for them and that moment we created together,” she said.

“During the trip, many people came up and expressed their love for us,” she added. “The outpouring of love from people we had literally just met was overwhelming. It interests me that love is something everyone longs for, but, at least here in the states, it’s something that makes people a bit uncomfortable, especially when it comes to loving out loud.”

This further inspired Biggs to live out loud, acknowledging the shared humanity of the people she meets daily. She explored this approach to life as an intern at Elon’s Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. “As a Christian, it expanded my view of the importance of multi- and interfaith, intersecting with different religions and people who do not observe any religion and the beauty in that,” she said.

Biggs was also president of Delta Chi Xi Honorary Dance Fraternity, Inc., which she brought to her campus and built from the ground up. The organization’s goal, she said, is “to recognize the academic caliber of being a dancer or artistic student. There’s still scholarship and research that’s a part of that.”

During her time at Elon, Biggs was chosen for the Isabella Cannon Leadership Fellows program, a four-year, cohorted program designed to help students build leadership competencies through a variety of programs and experiences. She also served the community through Elon Volunteers, regularly visiting the local Boys and Girls Club, sometimes teaching dance, and participating in an urban education trip during which she taught at a preschool in California.

Biggs enjoys a laugh with coworkers at the Public Theater in New York.

Learning to Pivot
Upon graduating from Elon, Biggs received the Sullivan Award for her leadership and service to others. “It was incredible to join the company of so many great leaders,” she said. “It was magical to be recognized in this way, for my commitment and passion for community service, helping others and inspiring community, making community into a verb.”

For her senior thesis concert, she was put in charge of fundraising and administrative leadership. “I thought that experience was so fun,” she said. “I enjoyed being on that side of an audition or decision-making table instead of on the floor rehearsing for hours and hours.”

With that experience in mind, Biggs moved home to New Jersey after graduating. She worked for the director of individual giving at the Tony Award-winning McCarter Theatre Center. After four years there, she secured a job as membership manager with the acclaimed Public Theater in New York City. Founded by the legendary producer Joseph Papp, the Public Theater is home to “A Chorus Line,” created “Hamilton” before it hit Broadway, and has offered free productions in Central Park for more than half a century. “Our mission is to make theater of, by and for all people, and, in these days, to really make theater accessible to all people,” Biggs said.

As the Public Theater’s membership manager, Biggs oversees thousands of households of entry-level donors, ensuring they are having fun and being taken care of. “I love learning people’s stories, so it’s a really neat job,” she said.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Public Theater pivoted to digital programming. Biggs said they collaborated with two playwrights on a production written for and filmed entirely on Zoom. Entitled “The Line,” the innovative play was about medical professionals dealing with the pandemic.

One of the Public Theater’s donors, a doctor, watched the play after a hard day’s work at the hospital and told Biggs that “he had never felt more seen.” “It was gripping,” Biggs added. “We were tapping into how the arts can help tell people’s stories.”

The Public Theater has now reopened for live shows but requires proof of vaccination and masks to attend shows, offering arts lovers a deeply missed experience after more than a year of pandemic isolation. “We exist because we help provide respite for ourselves and for all kinds of people and to revive the soul of the American people as a whole,” Biggs said.

Throughout these collegiate and professional transitions, Biggs has stayed on her feet, continuing to dance. She remembers the fall semester of her freshman year—a rare period in her life without dance—and how she felt constricted and unable to express herself. “It was terrible,” she said. “I had never felt like that, and I don’t ever want to feel like that again.”

Biggs has now added dance fitness as a zumba instructor to her resume. “It’s a wonderful entry point to dance,” she said. “Zumba has taught me that every body can dance or every body is a dancer.”

Biggs was a session coach at the Sullivan Foundation’s recent Fall 2021 Ignite Retreat.

Joining Conversations
During the pandemic quarantine, Biggs also learned about the Supermajority Education Fund, a leadership development training program designed for female leaders interested in learning about civic engagement. She applied to become a majority leader, looking to gain new skills in community organizing, policy implementation and leading positive change.

Biggs had always been interested in public administration and community organizing but had never felt qualified to get involved. “It has helped me see that I am the right person to serve in those roles or to learn more about that,” she said. As a member of the inaugural cohort, Biggs shared Zoom rooms with social impact leaders like Alicia Garza of the Black Lives Matter movement; LaTosha Brown, who works with voting rights groups; and actress and social advocate Sophia Bush.

Weekly conversations about social justice and election preparations allowed Biggs to see the impact women have in the world, both as the majority of voters and as individual leaders. “We have more power than we think,” she said.

Biggs also led virtual sessions with middle- and high school students. “I felt so energized from that experience,” she said. “I was able to lead sessions about election readiness, voter preparation, and then trying to enthuse young people who are not of voting age to encourage those who are of age to participate in the system.” She finds it important to begin these conversations early on; just as it’s harder to learn a musical instrument later in life, she said, it’s more difficult to create an attitude of engaged citizenship in older Americans. “[The kids] are full of joy and excitement about life,” she said. “The world through their eyes is so good, and that’s important to hold onto.”

Continuing in the spirit of education and mentorship, Biggs has coached workshops at the Sullivan Foundation’s Fall 2021 Ignite Retreat and led post-session discussion groups in the foundation’s Spring 2021 Ignite Masterclass series. Following the Ignite Retreat in early October, she posted on Instagram that she felt “forever grateful to the Sullivan Foundation for always being a strong anchor of hope in my life. This weekend was the start of something wonderful, and I’m so glad I was able to be a part of it, along with some phenomenal fellow coaches and some brilliant student leaders.”

As she continues to navigate the country’s evolving political and social climate, she recalls a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Faith is taking the next step even when you don’t see the staircase.”

“My dad is a reverend, so I really did grow up in the church,” she said. “The idea of faith in a religious sense, but also out of a religious context—like the faith to move on and the audacity to keep going—stems from countless lived experiences. It’s all centered on the faith to keep going. I think that drives me every day.” 


Social Innovation Opportunity Fair Offers Job and Internship Opportunities to Young Changemakers

College students pursuing a career in changemaking will meet and network with leading organizations and companies from around the world in the Sullivan Foundation’s upcoming Social Innovation Opportunity Fair.

The virtual event takes place from 6-8:30 p.m (ET)., Tuesday, Nov. 9, and is free, with a maximum capacity of 200 attendees. Click here to register today!

Participants in the Social Innovation Opportunity Fair will get the chance to:

  • Connect with impact organizations that offer internship opportunities
  • Meet representatives from socially minded companies that are hiring
  • Interact with social entrepreneurs to receive guidance and feedback

The event will feature virtual “booths” manned by Benefit Corporations and global service organizations around the nation. Some of the groups partnering on the event in 2020 included:

“We’ve heard from lots of students who are struggling to find opportunities to get started in their changemaking careers,” said Spud Marshall, the Sullivan Foundation’s director of student engagement and organizer of the event. “We’re going to lean on the collective resources across our Sullivan network to help students connect with internships, jobs, education and service opportunities.”

Social innovators and business leaders who want to participate in the event can fill out a survey here with details on the opportunity they’re offering.

If your organization would like to help promote the event, email Marshall at spud@sullivanfdn.org to learn more and to receive resources for sharing to your network.

Hollins University Students Inspired by Sullivan’s “Head, Heart, Hustle” Workshop

Students in Hollins University’s first-year seminar “Sustainability and Social Innovation” are focused on finding ways to address the world’s most pressing problems as they present themselves in our local communities. Class members this fall received inspiration and a blueprint on how to start finding their purpose as social entrepreneurs through “Head, Heart, Hustle,” an interactive workshop presented in September by the Sullivan Foundation as part of its Sullivan Roadshow.

“What we do is simply support young people who want to be changemakers,” explained Reagan Pugh, a facilitator with the Sullivan Foundation. Partnering with a network of 70 schools throughout the southeastern United States, the foundation inspires young people to prioritize service to others above self-interest.

Pugh discussed with the students the idea of finding “an intersection” between one’s own beliefs, passions and skills. “We know that we want that, but some of us are not one hundred percent clear what that looks like,” he said. “It’s a work in progress. The most effective young people are the most reflective young people.”

Related: Hollins University uses arts and letters to promote public transportation

Pugh urged the class to “take a minute and pay attention to what’s going on around us and make observations. Then, pick a path forward and do that incrementally over time. Move toward finding something that’s right for [you] and right for the world.”

In the “Head, Heart, Hustle” workshop, Pugh led the students in recognizing potential career pathways that employ one’s head (an individual’s skills and unique gifts) and align with one’s heart (the issues that matter most) in order to develop a hustle (a vocation) that fits the individual and serves others.

“If you leave here today and you have a clear step of something you might try, in real life, to bring you clarity about what you might want to do, that’s our goal,” Pugh noted.

Reagan Pugh at Hollins University

For his whirlwind, one-week Sullivan Roadshow, Pugh visited several other Sullivan Foundation partner schools, including Berry College, Warren Wilson College, Lees-McRae College and Mary Baldwin University.

At Hollins, all first-year students take a first-year seminar. These seminars allow them to participate in collaborative and active learning and to hone their skills in critical thinking, creative problem solving, research, writing and oral communication. Each seminar also has an upper-class student mentor called a Student Success Leader, or SSL. SSLs attend the seminar, help students with advising, and answer academic questions.

“Igniting passion into people and seeing them transform will always be a concept that’s magical to me,” said Hollins student Zahin Mahbuba, a senior who serves as the SSL for “Sustainability and Social Innovation.” From her perspective, the workshop had a profound impact. “It was tremendous to see the students being struck by their own sense of inspiration and to ultimately want to build on their passions.”

this photo shows Hollins University students pay close attention during Reagan Pugh's Head, Heart, Hustle workshop

Hollins University students pay close attention during Reagan Pugh’s Head, Heart, Hustle workshop.

Assistant Professor of Education Teri Wagner co-teaches “Sustainability and Social Innovation” with Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Science Mary Jane Carmichael. “At the heart of the concepts of sustainability and social innovation is stewardship—the responsible use and protection of the environment around you through thoughtful and intentional practices that enhance ecosystem resilience and human well-being,” Wagner said.

The concept of stewardship, she added, is applicable not only to the environment and nature, but also to economics, health, information, theology, cultural resources and beyond.

“In this seminar, we challenge students to develop innovative solutions to complex problems by applying design thinking principles while working in multidisciplinary collaborative teams,” Wagner said. “We challenge them to ask not what your community can do for you, but what you can do for your community.”

This article has been edited and expanded from the original version appearing on the Hollins University website.

Rollins College Ranked No. 1 Regional University in the South

Sullivan Foundation partner school Rollins College has once again been named the No. 1 regional university in the South by U.S. News & World Report for the 2021-22 school year.

Rollins College was ranked No. 1 among the 103 colleges and universities in this category, which is composed of schools that provide a full range of undergraduate and master’s-level programs. This is the 26th consecutive year that U.S. News & World Report has ranked Rollins among the top two regional universities in the South and the top-ranked Florida school in the category.

Related: How Rollins College and the Sullivan Foundation are developing the next generation of impact entrepreneurs

In total, the organization assessed more than 1,400 schools across the country on 17 measures of academic quality. Rollins continues to rank high among the competition based on metrics like first-year retention rates, strength of faculty, graduation and retention rates, and a low ratio of student debt among graduates.

“Rollins is proud once again to be recognized so prominently among the nation’s best colleges,” said Rollins College President Grant Cornwell. “The college’s long-standing title as the No. 1 regional university in the South highlights our commitment to providing students with every opportunity to succeed in a global market. Our inclusion in several distinctive subcategories affirms our mission to provide an innovative, interdisciplinary education to the next generation of leaders as they tackle the challenges of the 21st century.”

In addition to the top spot among the best of the best, Rollins earned a place on several other notable lists, including recognitions for its innovative liberal arts curriculum, commitment to undergraduate teaching, and overall value in terms of what graduates get out of their education. The College’s AACSB-accredited undergraduate business program was also rated as one of the country’s best.

Related: How Josephine Balzac-Arroyo inspires young changemakers at Rollins College

Rollins’ high rankings reflect the College’s dedication to providing students with strong mentors and engaging, personalized learning environments. The high level of support that students receive is also instructive as they learn to confront some of the world’s biggest challenges through hands-on learning experiences and the development of future-proof skills like creative problem solving and collaboration.

The print edition of the “Best Colleges 2022” guidebook can be purchased online now or on newsstands November 2.

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Rollins College website.

Bailey Pollard: Ignite Retreat “One of the Best Experiences I Have Had”

By Bailey Pollard, North Carolina State University

The Sullivan Foundation’s Fall 2021 Ignite Retreat was easily one of the best experiences I have had. I met so many incredible people and learned so much about myself and the world around me in just a short span of three days. I started the retreat with two goals; to gain confidence in myself and my abilities, and to create a project based on some ideas I had going into the retreat. One saying that really stuck with me this weekend—one that I will be sure to implement every day in my life—is that “there is movement in stillness.” I am the type of person that always needs to be doing something, and if I’m not doing anything I start feeling like I’m falling behind.

Before the retreat, I never thought about what it means to be a social entrepreneur. I just knew I wanted to change the world some way, somehow. Social innovation isn’t just about providing new products or new services; it’s about changing the underlying beliefs and relationships that structure the world around us

Saturday was dedicated to exploring our goals through workshops. The first workshop I chose was on a problem track. The problem track is designed for people who have an idea of what they want to accomplish but do not know how to start it. The theme for this workshop was focused on unlocking creativity. In this workshop, I was able to formulate my ideas into something I can do in real life with the guidance of the coaches. The coaches are all successful social entrepreneurs. They were able to give so much insight and guidance through their experiences, which I learned so much from. I learned that if you want something to happen, you must do it in real life no matter how big or how small. This stuck with me because I am forever “researching” my ideas online, but never formally acting on them.

Related: Jonathan Molai’s “life was forever changed” by the Ignite Retreat

The second workshop I chose was on the personal track. The personal track is designed to help you find your calling in life, to understand your skills and passions, and to build self-confidence. The theme for this workshop focused on overcoming fears. In the activity we did, we had a partner. One person had to talk for 20 minutes about something that was holding them back while the other person was not allowed to respond in any way. Most times in conversation we tend to add our own stories or insight, which can take away from someone else’s story. Or we are too busy thinking about how we can add to the conversation that we never truly are present in what the other person is sharing. This exercise allowed me to reflect on how I respond when conversing with others and even enjoy the “awkward” silences that encompass that.

Over the weekend, I challenged myself to start focusing on being directionally correct, which means focusing on moving in the right direction towards my goals. I definitely would say I gained confidence in myself and my abilities. I also am now in the process of developing my project with the help of the coaches.

But it wasn’t until we were on the way back home that I started to digest everything I learned. I went into the retreat with a closed mind on what I wanted to do. I left the retreat with a billion ideas and great enthusiasm to start a project I would have never even thought about. I also have the knowledge and resources now to make it happen!

Related: 7 things you should know about the Ignite Retreat

The thing I enjoyed the most from this retreat was being able to be vulnerable by sharing our deepest darkest worries, our dreams, and being our true selves. The coaches at the retreat provided eye-opening insight and motivation to allow us to take that step and go after our dreams. This experience challenged me, and I feel like I left as a new and improved person! I will take the skills I learned and use them for the rest of my life.

I wish that everyone could experience something as mind-blowing and amazing as the Sullivan Foundation Ignite Retreat.

Bailey Pollard is a Business Sustainability Collaborative (BSC) Associate at North Carolina State University. This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the NCSU website.

Spud Marshall Releases New Book, “Designing Creative Communities,” for Change Leaders

Creating positive change in your community can seem like a daunting prospect, but a new book authored by Spud Marshall, the Sullivan Foundation’s director of student engagement and leader of the twice-yearly Ignite Retreats, will make it easier for changemakers to get started—and to stay motivated.

Marshall was inspired to write “Designing Creative Communities” by his experiences as an award-winning community builder over the past decade. The book relates many of his adventures in changemaking and leadership development, and focuses on the CANVAS Framework, a process for designing your own creative community.

The book is available for purchase now at Amazon. Click here to buy it.

Additionally, the companion Field Guide will help you take the concepts from the book and apply them to your own community. Click here to buy the Field Guide.

“After working with over 1,000 students at Ignite Retreats and through Sullivan programs, I kept hearing from young, emerging leaders that they were hungry to create change in their community, but weren’t sure how to get started,” Marshall said. “This book was inspired by many of the conversations that took place at Sullivan events – and even features the stories of some past Sullivan facilitators and participants!”

“Designing Creative Communities” introduces the reader to the CANVAS Framework, where you’ll learn how to:

Chart your path (and avoid getting an RV stuck in the mud)

Ask probing questions (by jumping into an inflatable ball pit on the street)

Name early adopters (and create a secret society)

Visualize a prototype (while ensuring that bees don’t escape into your home)

Articulate your story (using a giant blue chameleon car)

Sustain efforts with partners (without harming a single piano)

The book has already garnered enthusiastic reviews from change leaders across the country. Erin Krampetz Boyd, cofounder of Ashoka U, described it as “a brilliant take on how to design your own creative community. This is a must-read for any emerging leader.”

Michael Fortunato, founding partner of Creative Insight Community Development, said “Designing Creative Communities” is “an essential read for anyone in community and economic development professions, or anyone that just wants to make a positive contribution to their community.”

“Spud weaves captivating and highly entertaining stories about success, failure and overcoming adversity from his own creative practice in dozens of communities, providing powerful tools for creative transformation with humor, humility and honest self-reflection,” Fortunato added. “This book is hugely relatable and difficult to put down; it is one influential guide that I will be recommending widely to colleagues and communities alike.”

Spud Marshall leads a session at the Sullivan Foundation’s Ignite Retreat.

Marshall is a serial social entrepreneur, creative community builder and lover of fog machines. In addition to leading the Sullivan Foundation’s Ignite Retreats and virtual Ignite Masterclasses for college student changemakers, he is the founder of My Creative Community, which supports groups in designing engaging experiences for their communities. He serves as a facilitator, coach and consultant alongside organizations ranging from the Sullivan Foundation, Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts to Teach for America, the American Planning Association, and Johnson & Johnson.

In addition to his community consultation work, he founded 3 Dots Downtown, a community arts and innovation event center, where he served as the Innovation Director. He is also the founder and chief catalyst for the co.space, a 20-person intentional community for young changemakers, which has been listed as one of the top disruptive innovations to emerge in higher education. Prior to those efforts, Spud founded New Leaf Initiative, which currently serves as a dedicated co-working space and innovation incubator.

Marshall has been honored as a Knight Foundation Emerging Cities Champion, listed as one of the top millennial civic leaders in the country, and been featured as one of the Foremost Under 40 Business Leaders in central Pennsylvania. He lives in State College, Pennsylvania, with his wife, loyal dog, and curious cat. To view his most recent projects and to explore ways to partner with Marshall, visit www.mycreative.community or email him at spud@mycreative.community.

The Fall 2021 Ignite Retreat: One Person Really Can Change the World

Changing the world is never easy. In fact, as challenges go, it’s downright intimidating, especially for individuals. And when you’re still in college, it might seem downright impossible. But that’s how meaningful change usually starts—with young, passionate people who genuinely care about their communities, their country, and the planet.

In other words, one person really can change the world. And one person with a network of like-minded peers, coaches and mentors can get it done better and faster. This year’s Ignite Retreat, hosted Oct. 8-10 by the Sullivan Foundation in Asheville, N.C., makes leading social change a little easier—and a lot more fun. This event offers college students a chance to meet with and learn from experienced change leaders and coaches who have started nonprofits, built social ventures and dedicated their careers to creating better communities.

Advance registration for the event is required, and the deadline to sign up is Sept. 9. It’s coming up fast, so click here to register today!


this photo shows coaches from a past Ignite Retreat event for college student changemakers

Experienced coaches and entrepreneurs will provide mentorship for changemakers at the upcoming Ignite Retreat.

Three Tracks
So how does the retreat work? For starters, you get to choose your own changemaking adventure through three tracks:

Personal: This track is designed for those who are still trying to uncover their calling in life. If you want to better understand your skills and your passions, build up your self-confidence and learn about the mindset of the social entrepreneur, the Personal Track is for you!

Problems: So let’s say you already know what you want to accomplish—there’s a specific problem or set of problems that you want to address—but don’t know how to get cracking on it. The Problems Track is where you’ll learn how to become more involved, organized and proactive and start making a difference. You will leave with concrete and practical skills to put your ideas into action.

Project: This is the deep dive. In this track, you’ll be coached along as you develop one concrete solution, campus initiative, project or venture that you want to bring to life! You will leave the retreat excited, motivated and ready to make a difference back home!

It’s work, yes, but it’s meaningful work, not like the stuffy classroom book-learning that can make your college experience a little, well, tedious. And you’ll be connecting one-to-one with potential mentors and fellow students who can help make your dreams a reality—or, at least, give you the ongoing encouragement you need to keep marching forward.

The Ignite Retreat Agenda
In three days, you will receive mentorship from coaches and entrepreneurs, attend workshops and take part in fun, thought-provoking exercises, and rub shoulders with like-minded students from more than 30 universities who will become your friends, cheerleaders and co-conspirators. Here’s how it will all play out:

Day 1, Friday, Oct. 8
6-7 p.m.: Dinner
7-9 p.m.: Kick-off Workshop and Welcome

  • Framing & Introductions
  • Agenda Overview
  • A Quick Dive into Social Entrepreneurship
  • Intention Setting for the Weekend

Day 2, Saturday, Oct. 9
8-9 a.m.: Breakfast

9-10:30 a.m. Morning warm-up

  • Connection
  • “What is changemaking?” discussion
  • Introduction of track sessions (Personal, Problems and Project)

10:45 a.m.-12:15 a.m.: Workshop 1

  • Personal: Head, Heart, Hustle
  • Problems: Unlocking Creativity
  • Project: Charting Your First Steps

12:30-2 pm.: Lunch

2-4 p.m.: Workshop 2

  • Personal: Farewell Fear
  • Problems: Grow Your Team
  • Project: Pitch and Find the Money!

4:45-6 p.m.: Full Group Tiny Reach

6-7 p.m.: Dinner

7-8 p.m.: Changemaker Storytime

8-9 p.m.: Try on a Hustle 

Day 3, Sunday, Oct. 10
8-9 a.m.: Breakfast

9-10:15 a.m.: Prototype Pitch Competition

10:15-11:15 a.m.: Closing debrief


College students from across the country have described their Ignite Retreat as life-changing. “An activity that particularly stood out to me was about empathic listening,” said Angy Aguilar, a computer science and entrepreneurship double major from Elon University who attended the Fall 2019 Ignite Retreat. “Students formed groups, and one person in the group shared a problem in their life that they had. We were encouraged to ask ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions rather than ‘why’ questions to really understand the problem. I found this activity very valuable as most of the time we listen to respond rather than listen to understand and empathize.”

“After this weekend, I know I have a community of people who understand my motivation,” said Imani Vincent, an Elon University health major who joined Aguilar at the retreat. “What amazed me about the Ignite Retreat was being able to be in a space with so many people with different perspectives who all want in some way to make social change.”

“My first Ignite Retreat had such a huge impact on me that I wanted to become more involved with the organization,” said Amber Merklinger, a past Ignite Retreat attendee and alumnus of Campbell University. “It will ignite in you the desire to go beyond the superficial and dig deep into the heart of the community in order to help those around you.”

And Amaya Lyles, a Columbia College graduate, said her Ignite Retreat experience “truly sparked a change in me and ignited a fire that I didn’t know I had. I entered with no clue what I was going to get out of it other than some peace of mind and fresh air. I left feeling transcendent and with a new business idea.”

Want to feel transcendent? The Ignite Retreat will make it happen. Sign up today!

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all participants in this year’s Ignite Retreat will be required to provide proof of vaccination prior to their arrival. Except for meals, you must wear a mask for all indoor activities, but workshops will be held outdoors whenever possible if the weather permits. Finally, if you develop COVID-19 symptoms in the days leading up to the retreat, you should not attend the event. However, your ticket can be redeemed at no cost for the Spring 2022 Ignite Retreat.

Ignite Masterclasses for Student Changemakers Return in September 2021

More than 2,000 changemakers from 27 colleges and universities took part in the Sullivan Foundation’s Ignite Masterclasses in the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters. Now, this innovative masterclass series is back for the Fall 2021 semester, bringing together students from across the globe to learn how they can make a real difference on their campuses and in their communities as true change leaders.

Presented by Spud Marshall of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation, the virtual Ignite Masterclasses are free to all participants. Held online throughout September, these masterclass workshops and networking sessions will feature award-winning social innovation leaders and facilitators from the Sullivan Foundation’s upcoming Fall 2021 Ignite Retreat. Each talk will highlight an Ignite Retreat coach or facilitator, and students will then get to meet them in person at the retreat, to be held October 8-10 in Asheville, N.C.

Learn more about the Ignite Masterclasses and register to attend sessions for free here.

Each 75-minute session consists of a lightning talk on a specific social initiative as well as a chance to network with peers and coaches in the changemaking field. Students will get the chance to build relationships with students from other universities and around the world. They will also meet and learn from leading social innovators in these interactive, action-inspiring events.

This semester’s Ignite Masterclasses kick off on Wednesday, Sept. 1, and continue through Wednesday, Sept. 22. Covered topics include:

* Leadership and Personal Development
* Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation
* Education and Community Development
* Poverty and Hunger
* Health and Wellness
* Social Justice and Equality
* Environment and Climate

Here’s a closer look at the full Ignite Masterclass Schedule for Fall 2021:

Note: All times are Eastern time.

Wednesday, Sept. 1
1-2:15 p.m.
Why Following Your Passion is a Bad Idea and What to Do Instead

What does it even mean to “follow your passion”? Most of us have tried it and lost our motivation, gotten discouraged and found ourselves back where we started—with no clear direction. In this interactive discussion, you’ll learn why participating in activities that reveal progress is far more important than pursuing your passions. You’ll learn tactics you can use to get clarity on your future by tracking your knowledge and skills instead of your passions.

Click here to register for this session now.

Tuesday, Sept. 7
12:30-1:45 p.m.
How to Be an Entrepreneur When You Don’t Have a Big Idea

Many of us want to start our own business and live life by our own rules and on our own schedule. But how do you do it if you don’t already have a big idea in mind? In this interactive session, you’ll learn from entrepreneurs who have figured it out. You’ll walk away with strategies to help you begin your journey as an entrepreneur even if you don’t know how to start.

Click here to register for this session now.

Thursday, Sept. 9
11 a.m.-12:15 p.m.
How to Create a Community Where People Regularly Give Back

Does it seem like you’re the only person in your community who really wants to create positive change? Learn how to get others to join you on your changemaking journey in this masterclass session. You’ll learn how to motivate friends and neighbors to act selflessly and create a roadmap to building a community where more people want to get involved and give back.

Click here to register for this session now.

Tuesday, Sept. 14
2-3:15 p.m.
How to Discover the Root Needs That Exist in Your Community

Do you really understand your community’s needs, or do you just think you do? You could be wrong. To really make a difference, you need to listen the needs of others in your community and start crafting solutions to meet those needs. In this discussion, you’ll discover how to you can create a successful and sustainable venture that will serve your community’s true needs.

Click here to register for this session now.


Thursday, Sept. 16
2-3:15 p.m. (session 1)
3:30-4:45 p.m. (session 2)
How to Help People Adopt New Habits

Improving the health of our communities involves small daily actions. Whether it’s health choices, mindsets or financial decisions, our habits shape our lives and our perspectives. This session will help you guide others to adopt better habits through the science of habit formation. You’ll acquire the skills to understand the habits of your community and insights on how to guide people toward healthier behaviors.

Click here to register for session 1 now.

Click here to register for session 2 now.

Monday, Sept. 20
2:30-3:45 p.m.
How to Use the Arts to Infuse Racial Justice into Your Professional and Personal Efforts
Many of us struggle to start conversations about racial injustice, but these conversations have become increasingly important. Sometimes the most powerful way to create change is helping people to shift their perspectives and offer them a new way of seeing injustice or providing a challenge through creative mediums like dance, poetry, drama and the visual arts. In this dialogue, you’ll learn how to combine the power of being an activist with the inspiration of an artist.

Click here to register for this session now.


 Wednesday, Sept. 22
2:30-3:45 p.m.
10 Small Ways to Create a More Sustainable Campus
Lasting change takes time and patience—a lot of both. Progress moves so slowly, we often barely even notice it. But when it comes to being environmentally conscious and establishing sustainable practices on your campus, you can make a bigger difference than you realize. After this thought-provoking session with an environmental changemaker, you’ll leave with ideas for making small yet crucial changes to create a more sustainable campus.

Click here to register for this session now.


Toy Story: How Amanda Arseneau Jumped Off the Corporate Ladder and Found True Success With My Little Pony

By Meagan Harkins

In her first job as an intern at the national headquarters of Cracker Barrel, Amanda Cothron Arseneau, a 1999 recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Cumberland University, served the company wherever she was needed—even to the point of dressing as a jellybean at a company picnic. “That’s how I got my foot in the door, and I wound up in a junior analyst position,” Arseneau recalled.

But in the coming decade, the ambitious Arseneau, who is now happily self-employed in her hometown of Gallatin, Tenn., nearly worked herself to death. She has since learned to take it easy on herself, she said, and to do her part to make life a little easier for others through volunteerism, a calling she has felt since she was a kid.

Ironically, her new life began with a return to her old life and her girlhood love for collectible My Little Pony toys.

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That new life, of course, didn’t come easily. By the time Arseneau had earned her masters degree from Cumberland University in 2001, she was already a year into her position as a restaurant analyst. From there, her career in corporate finance and information technology took her to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company Consolidated, Sumner Regional Health Systems and Dollar General. Her work included sales unit analysis, database administration and planograming, a technique for determining how and where specific retail products should be placed on shelves or displays to increase sales.

Sumner Regional, headquartered in Gallatin, was her favorite job. “It felt like coming home,” Arseneau recalled. She’d previously spent her childhood there as a volunteer, directing people at the desk, helping with purchase orders and visiting patients. She later volunteered as a marketing intern for Sumner Regional during college.

Artist and entrepreneur Amanda Arseneau with her parents, Maxine and Ottis Cothron

But the corporate life just wasn’t for her. “I climbed pretty high, but I was also becoming disenfranchised with corporate entities,” Arseneau said. “I don’t like people being treated unfairly. Any kind of injustice just brings out this fire in me, and it was being brought out a lot.”

Eventually, Arseneau began experimenting with other jobs to decide what kind of environment she preferred. Today she runs a successful eBay store—Amanda’s Treasure Dungeon—geared toward collectors and creates and sells commissioned artwork.

After years away from the corporate office, she remains grateful for what she learned from those experiences, including teamwork, balancing opinions and personalities, effectively presenting ideas, decision making, budgeting time, and honoring deadlines. “I’ve carried that over into what I do now, but I have a lot more freedom,” Arseneau said. “That opened my eyes to things not having to be so rigid sometimes. There can be more of a workflow, appreciation for people’s schedules, a little bit more creativity.”

“You may think you have to put your creativity on the back burner to fit into a certain mold, but you can let it out,” she added. “It has value. Even if you stay in that corporate environment, let it out a little bit. I look back at some opportunities that I missed because I thought I had to stay in that perfect mold, that I couldn’t let the creativity come out in that. There were some places where I probably missed some opportunities—if I had only felt enough confidence to do that.”

Related: Danielle Biggs: “Lean into your truest self and lead out loud!”

Creating Balance
Confidence didn’t always come easily to Arseneau as a kid. She grew up with generalized anxiety disorder, which she describes as being nervous about something at every moment of every day. “There’s no rest,” she said. “There’s only so long your body can do that for.” One day, in fact, she found herself in the emergency room, worried that she was having a heart attack. All of that anxiety had taken a physical toll on her body. “I didn’t have enough adrenaline to live on,” she said. “I used it all up in this constant fight-or-flight kind of state.”

Arseneau had entered the corporate world immediately after college because it seemed like the logical next step. “I had no work-life balance at that point—it was all work. I found myself bringing it home at night. With that anxiety condition, I would not let it go. It was, frankly, just making me sick.”

From this experience, Arseneau learned that too much work can be crippling—it can’t be allowed to consume your life. People who work long hours, she noted, “are missing what’s really important. I mean, you shouldn’t live to work. You should work to live.”

After becoming self-employed and learning to manage her anxiety with medications and lifestyle changes, Arseneau gained a new perspective on life. “I’m clearer now, so I find myself wanting to help people still in that environment, navigating what they’re going through,” she said. “Find and demand a work-life balance. You will have to make some sacrifices, but don’t let a career take over your world.”

My Little Ponies
So how did Arseneau end up launching her online business and striking that balance? She grew up playing with My Little Ponies—the original G1 ponies were her favorites. Arseneau rediscovered her beloved toys in 2007. Dusting off her old collection, she began purchasing new pieces to create finished sets. Since she often had to order the toys in bulk to add just one piece to her collection, she began reselling the extra items. Over time, she got better at cleaning up, restoring and reselling them for a profit. Now Arseneau goes to yard sales to find vintage My Little Ponies and refurbishes them to sell to collectors, primarily overseas, on eBay. “It was kind of an accident, the way I fell into it,” she said.

“I believe salvaging and restoring old items is important in remembering our culture and families,” Arseneau said. “They keep us connected to the past, and I believe that’s important in preparing and succeeding in the future.”

In addition to playing with My Little Ponies, Arseneau spent her childhood drawing, especially when she volunteered at the hospital. She began selling her artwork in high school and has circled back to that passion today. Requests for commissioned artwork have led to her own Facebook page and Etsy store. After being given a photo from the customer, she recreates it with pen and black ink, creating stunning pieces that preserve clients’ favorite places and memories for a lifetime.

Related: The church and the classroom are holy places for Dr. Ray Penn

The Right College Atmosphere
Her time at Cumberland University gave her the opportunity to blossom as an artist even while preparing for a corporate career. The university felt like a natural fit, as she wanted to live at home, save money and stay near her parents. She was a business major with minors in accounting and computer information systems, but the artistic teen paid her way through school with choral and theater scholarships.

Arseneau had been involved in musical theater since the second grade, first performing in a snowman suit as Happy the Snowman. “When I sing or do theater, I don’t want to do it in front of one or two people,” she said, noting she couldn’t even look at her mother when practicing for a play as a child. “But in front of crowds, I have no fear. It was just getting to fully immerse in that fictional character and bring it to life.”

She was extremely active on campus. She performed with the Phoenix Players, University Singers and Cumberland Chorale and served the Fine Arts Alliance as secretary and treasurer. She was a member of Alpha Omicron Pi Women’s Fraternity, Omicron Delta Kappa National Leadership Fraternity, Alpha Lambda Delta National Honor Society, Alpha Chi National Honor Society, Alpha Psi Omega Theater Honor Society, Sigma Beta Delta National Business Honor Society, and Phi Beta Lambda Business Fraternity, which she served as president.

Amanda celebrates earning her bachelor’s degree with her mother, Maxine Cothron, in 1999.

“Cumberland changed me a lot,” Arseneau said. “I was the really shy, smart, artsy girl in high school. Then, when I hit college, everything changed. I was suddenly sought after and recognized for the skills I had. It was the kind of atmosphere that I needed to grow into who I was going to be.”

One day in the spring of her senior year, she sat doing her homework at the gazebo outside the administration building when an administrator walked up and told her she was being awarded the 1999 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award. “It took me a minute to find out why they chose me,” she said. “I was very humbled by it; I think I am to this day.”

Arseneau loved Cumberland University so much that she stayed there to work on her MBA, this time on full scholarship with paid room and board. She also worked fulltime at Cracker Barrel, ran the box office, used her lunch hour to attend choir practice, participated in every musical, and took her classes at night.

In other words, she was never a stranger to hard work. But her later transition from corporate America to being her own boss felt both immediately freeing and awkward to Arseneau. The self-discipline it required was daunting at first, but she has learned to take advantage of and enjoy her weekends and vacations. Being self-employed has also given herself the flexibility to volunteer at local hospitals, animal shelters and horseback riding programs. In the summers, she volunteers at her church, painting sets for Vacation Bible School. “It’s about using your talents where you can,” she said.

Arseneau finds herself most impacted at a personal level by continuing to volunteer at the hospital, encountering countless staff members, patients and guests every day. “I learned to recognize people in need, and, over the years, I have developed a strong drive to obtain justice for those not able or willing to find it on their own,” she said.

Amanda and her husband, Matt Arseneau

This servant-mindset came from watching her mom, Maxine Cothron, respond to the needs of her coworkers and friends. “I watched her be the person that everybody came to,” Arseneau said. “She is just this person that you drift to. I saw that, and I saw that there was no hesitation [on her part] to help somebody, ever. The joy that she would give to people—I wanted to be that, to do that, to help people. There’s maybe a little bit of selfishness because, when you help someone, you feel good.”

In addition to running Amanda’s Treasure Dungeon and her artwork, Arseneau, who has the full support of her husband, Matt, also spends her days writing speeches for individuals, preparing resumes, and helping with budgets. “There’s no unhappiness with my job because I’m utilizing my skills to do what I love,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I’m bored or want to do something different. Almost no one finds that perfect work position where you love to go to work every day, but I found that.”

Arseneau spoke about the expectation to continue climbing the corporate ladder, seeking raises and loftier titles. “I want people to know that sometimes it’s not about that. It’s not about climbing the ladder. That may not be the place for you. You can still utilize those skills in other ways that make you much happier and help a lot more people doing it.”


This LGBTQ Scholarship Is the First of Its Kind in the SEC

Food access, sustainability and conservation have become mainstream conversations worldwide. And while these issues are broad, too often, representation within these discussions is not, according to the University of Kentucky (UK), a Sullivan Foundation partner school.

To address the problem, the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment has launched the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Fund—the first of its kind in the Southeastern Conference. The fund was created with the intention of diversifying Kentucky agricultural and environmental industries.

The lack of diversity across agricultural and environmental leadership is compounding the immense challenges facing our planet. For rising leaders, this dilemma is all too real.

Related: Rollins College alumnus “Papa Viva” creates safe haven for families affected by AIDS

“As a minority in the state of Kentucky, I’ve experienced different encounters based upon my gender, race and sexuality,” said Iyahna Wilson, an agricultural education student at UK. “As an openly lesbian Black woman, I have participated in protests, held spaces for individuals like myself, and reflected on the experiences that I have encountered. At the University of Kentucky, as a minority it can be hard to express yourself if the spaces aren’t there for you.”

this photo shows Iyahna Wilson, a queer student who is excited about the new LGBTQ scholarship being offered at University of Kentucky

Iyahna Wilson

Understanding these student experiences, University of Kentucky staff and faculty are taking decisive steps in fostering more inclusive spaces and an equitable workforce.

“I hope the creation of this scholarship shows our students that everyone belongs here, and we are dedicated to their success,” said Mia Farrell, assistant dean and director for diversity in UK’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. “While we know more can be done, this is a big step in the right direction.”

Thanks to a grant from JustFundKY, a nonprofit advocacy group for LGBTQ Kentuckians, a commemorative artwork has been commissioned to promote this new scholarship. The print, titled “Ag is for All: Diversity Feeds the World,” was created by queer Kentucky artist Wylie Caudill. Those interested in receiving the artwork may email their request to Seth Riker.

Related: Elon University social entrepreneurs help black-owned businesses find new customers

“While we know this scholarship will lessen financial burdens for our students, we also hope Wylie’s artwork will leave a lasting impression in the spaces it is posted,” said Carmen Agouridis, associate dean for instruction in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. “Tomorrow’s solutions will require unique passions and skills from all backgrounds. And everyone should be able to contribute as their authentic self.”

Students like Wilson agree. “Thankfully, I have a cohort that allows me to express myself without judgement,” said Wilson. “I believe that individuals who are underrepresented should be allowed to express, experience and engage comfortably at their university.”

Those wishing to support this newly created scholarship may donate via University of Kentucky’s Network for Good website.

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the University of Kentucky website.