By Meagan Harkins
Lucy Cross, a New York native and high school teacher, moved to Florida in 1879 for health reasons. Little did she know at the time that she would end up founding one of the most prestigious small colleges in the United States and helping to transform higher education in the Sunshine State—with a little help in later years from the Sullivan Foundation.
Once settled in Daytona Beach, Cross opened the Daytona Institute for children of tourists, offering eight-month courses instead of the usual four months provided in the public schools at the time. During that period, she saw the need for a strong liberal arts college and approached her pastor, Rev. C.M. Bingham of the Congregational Church, in 1884 to help secure funding.
The church formed a committee and received a $50,000 donation from A.W. Rollins, a Chicago businessman. Founded in 1885, Rollins College, now a Sullivan Foundation partner school, is the oldest college in the state, residing on Lake Virginia in Winter Park, Fla.
As Rollins grew and evolved, Hamilton Holt, a journalist, social activist and politician, became its eighth president in 1925, serving for 24 years, and sparked the college’s longtime relationship with the Sullivan Foundation. Holt promoted extensive interaction between professors and students and limited Rollins’ enrollment to ensure students would receive enough individualized attention and mentorship from faculty and staff. Holt went on to found the Rollins Educational Conference in 1931, a five-day national conference to unite leaders throughout the field of higher education.
Holt also created Rollins’ popular Walk of Fame, commemorating hundreds of leaders and thinkers—from George Washington to Ralph Waldo Emerson and St. Augustine—with stones placed along the pathway by Holt himself. He placed high value on leadership and quickly recognized the potential of collaboration with the Sullivan Foundation.
A Friendship Leads to a Partnership
As George Sullivan, the son of Algernon Sydney and Mary Mildred Sullivan, worked to establish the Sullivan Foundation in memory of his parents, he simultaneously developed a friendship with Holt.
Sullivan partnered with the New York Southern Society, founded by his father, and asked Holt to assist in identifying two Rollins students to receive the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Medallion, which was to be “bestowed, not earned.” Rollins’ first Sullivan Award winner was Irving Bachellor, who went on to become a novelist and honorary Rollins trustee.
In 1936, the Sullivan Scholars Program was born, a Sullivan Foundation partnership with Rollins College that recognizes servant-hearted juniors and seniors. After 85 years, Rollins students continue writing essays annually about how their lives honor the values that the Sullivan family championed. These scholarship recipients also receive a one-time monetary contribution to their service work.
Meanwhile, Holt continued working with George Sullivan to develop a partnership focused on social entrepreneurship and awarded Sullivan himself the Rollins College Decoration of Honor in 1940.
A Who’s Who of Sullivan Award Winners
The next Rollins president named a facility on the Rollins campus in memory of the Sullivans in 1947, and the Sullivan Memorial House was dedicated in 1948 in recognition of the Sullivan Foundation’s continued generosity. These spaces have housed classrooms and hosted meetings and services of the Rollins’ Circle of Sullivan Scholars as well as other student organizations. It is decorated with art pieces and memorabilia that George Sullivan donated from his parents’ estate.
Since Sullivan and Holt’s early days of collaboration, the partnership between Rollins College and the Sullivan Foundation has only been strengthened. The Sullivan Tuition Assistance Scholarship covers 50 percent of undergraduate tuition costs for one rising Rollins junior whose life and deeds exemplify service above self.
Meanwhile, Rollins College boasts a veritable Who’s Who list of highly deserving Sullivan Award recipients. It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood when Rollins alumnus Fred Rogers received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Foundation Award in 2001. Rollins’ 155 award recipients have included Sara Jane Renfroe, a program officer with a refugee resettlement agency; children’s behavioral therapist Luz Cabrera; and Camp Viva cofounder Tony Lembeck.
Rollins College now awards the Sullivan Medallion to three students annually: one graduating male, one graduating female and one local resident. The private liberal arts college also provides scholarships to allow two students and a faculty member to attend the semi-annual Sullivan Service and Social Entrepreneurship Program retreats in hopes they will apply the skills they acquire to their own Central Florida communities.
The Social Impact Hub
Rollins College sends students to Sullivan Foundation retreats during their first or second years on campus, so that they can make better use of their time as servant leaders at Rollins. Faculty note that students come back energized and stay in touch with people they meet from other schools, then go on to serve other students beyond the retreat. “That really speaks to the way that Sullivan conducts their retreats,” said Dr. Tonia Warnecke, the George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Chair of Social Entrepreneurship and professor and director of social entrepreneurship at Rollins College.
“It’s valuable to connect to a broader network of schools that are prioritizing social entrepreneurship and social innovation,” Warnecke said. She feels it is important for schools from different places with different demographics, institutional sizes and resource levels to collaborate with each other and with presenters.
The connections that students and presenters make at Sullivan Foundation events can reap long-lasting rewards. Sarah Ismail, president of Rollins College’s Muslim Student Union, attended one of the Ignite Retreats and has kept in close contact with Ignite Retreat presenter Arshiya Kherani. Kherani launched Sukoon Active, a sustainable activewear line for Muslim women. Due to their relationship, Kherani’s work was incorporated into Rethinking Fashion, Rollins College’s ethical and sustainable fashion show.
Working with the Sullivan Foundation “makes my job easier,” said Melissa Nelson, staff director of Rollins College’s Social Impact Hub, which gives students the tools and resources they need to address local and global social issues. She finds recruiting students for her programs to be less difficult, as they are already eager to make actionable change.
A collaborative effort between three staff members and 10 student employees, the Social Impact Hub is “committed to developing changemakers by connecting students to opportunities inside and outside of Rollins.” The hub offers curricular and co-curricular programming in social entrepreneurship, social innovation, sustainability and nonprofit organizations.
Both students and faculty are able to participate in seminars, mentorships, networking, design thinking sessions and community immersion opportunities. Nelson describes the hub as a “creative space on campus for students to work through the wicked problems of the world.”
The Social Impact Hub fosters awareness and education while providing resources for passionate student leaders who want to enact change. Many students opt for environmentally-focused projects—for example, installing floating gardens on Lake Virginia to absorb fertilizer runoff, which is good for both beautification and providing residents with food.
Other Social Impact Hub teams have launched social-impact businesses manufacturing trash bags from recycled plastic and refurbished donated shoes to provide for in-need individuals.
An Ashoka U Changemaker Campus
Rollins College was recognized in 2012 as an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus, acknowledging its leadership, innovation and commitment to social entrepreneurship—a business sector that George Sullivan supported early on. Rollins’ commitment to service is also exemplified through the Center for Leadership & Community Engagement. “It’s important for students to think about service and its role in our lives and have meaningful opportunities to integrate service into both curricular and co-curricular activities,” Warnecke said.
Rollins’ social entrepreneurship department, chaired by Warnecke, was established in 2018, following the creation of the social entrepreneurship major and minor in 2013. “Not everything happens at once, and that’s what we learn with changemaking,” Warnecke said. “There are processes to make change. They take time and effort. They may not be easy but nothing worth doing ever is.”
Warnecke and her team envisioned the opportunity to develop specialized courses. “It has been important for continuing to improve the depth and breadth of social entrepreneurship education here,” she said. Social entrepreneurship is now the college’s tenth largest undergraduate major and eighth largest minor.
Additionally, Rollins’ social entrepreneurship program has been utilizing the Sullivan Foundation’s Ignite Masterclasses. These free 75-minute workshops and networking sessions highlight changemakers and specific social innovations and have been incorporated into Warnecke’s students’ class schedule. Rollins College partnered to co-host Masterclasses in both the fall and spring semesters, including “How to Use the SDGs to Localize Innovation” and “Disrupting Harmful Stories of People and Places.”
Held online in Fall 2020 and continuing in Spring 2021, the Ignite Masterclasses were a necessary pivot from the foundation’s in-person Ignite Retreats and field trips due to COVID-19. “It speaks to how innovative the Sullivan Foundation is,” Nelson said. “Some students said that, of all the virtual [activities] of last semester, those were the most engaging.”
“They loved it,” Warnecke added. “Students emailed me afterwards, noting they had never experienced a virtual platform like that before. It brings the idea of global citizenship to a different level. I’m very grateful to the Sullivan Foundation for having put something like this together, at a time when physical and geographical connection is much more challenging. Providing meaningful opportunities for connection is extremely valuable.”