MBU Partnership Targets Education and Wealth Gaps Among Underserved Young Men of Color

A dozen or so young Black men sat in Mary Baldwin University’s Jane Miller Welcome Center and shared thoughts about their day on campus. They’d spent the past few hours meeting MBU professors, staff and students, visiting residence halls, classrooms and athletics facilities, grabbing coffee and lunch in the dining hall, and more.

“Pick the word or phrase that best expresses how you feel right now,” suggested Associate Vice President of Student Engagement Dr. Learie Nurse, who was leading the discussion.

The graduating high school seniors paused before answering. Some wavered, struggling with emotions as they uttered words and sentences like “amazed,” “surreal,” “dream-come-true,” “perfect,” and “I just can’t believe it.”

Related: Service is a top priority for students in Mary Baldwin’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted

For these young men, Mary Baldwin had rewritten expectations around what college would look like. They all grew up in the roughest and most underserved areas of New York City’s inner city boroughs. When they imagined college life, they’d envisioned amphitheater classrooms crammed with hundreds of learners, professors burdened with so many students they couldn’t learn anyone’s name, loud urban campuses that sprawled like small cities—the list goes on.

“I loved how beautiful the campus was, how you could step outside a building and look out and see so many trees and mountains,” said Kwame Opoku, a star basketball player who intends to study criminal justice and become a lawyer. “Everyone was just so nice. They seemed genuinely glad to meet me, to learn about my goals, to get to know me, and to figure out ways they could help me find my place here and succeed.”

The visit to MBU, which took place in April, had also inspired reflections about the young men’s incredible academic journey. They were graduating from Southeast Queens Eagle Academy, which is part of a six-school, all-male college preparatory system that serves 4,000 of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged students of color in New York and Newark, New Jersey.

Virtually all of them were slated to become the first in their family to pursue a college degree.

“Where I come from, most people will laugh in a kid’s face if they say they’re gonna go to college—it’s more normal to drop out [of high school] than graduate,” said Isaih Scotland, who plans to major in psychology and pursue a career in psychiatry. “So, to be standing here right now, we’ve beaten the odds. It’s taken so much work, so much dedication. Honestly, it’s hard to let myself believe I’ve really made it.”

The visit was the result of a new partnership between Mary Baldwin and Eagle Academy spearheaded by MBU Vice President of Student Engagement Ernest Jeffries and Vice President of Enrollment Management Matt Munsey. The initial connection was made by Board of Trustees chair Gabby McCree, who introduced Jeffries to Yevette Vargas, head of development at Citizens Bank in Staunton, Va. Vargas subsequently invited Jeffries to represent MBU in collaborating on a project to create a program for young men of color to help close knowledge gaps and reduce barriers to their success. An Eagle Academy representative was part of that team and approached Jeffries about forming a separate partnership.

All of the students from the Eagle Academy visit have applied to MBU and been accepted, with five—including Opoku and Scotland—making deposits for fall semester that day. At least two more have since followed suit.

Related: How one Mary Baldwin student is using her MBA to improve education for dyslexic youths

“From the beginning, this partnership felt tailormade for us, Eagle Academy, and—most importantly—these students,” Jeffries said.

Academy graduates are highly motivated and have a strong sense of professional direction. But they’re used to learning in a small, tight-knit community environment that’s structured to meet the needs of underserved students living in areas suffering from higher rates of poverty, substance abuse, violence and toxic family dynamics.

Put another way: They’ve been treated more like family members than clients. That can make adjusting to a 50,000-plus student, majority-white institution like New York University tough.

In fact, a recent study of U.S. public universities found Black students at such schools are 250% less likely to earn a college degree than their white counterparts. Worse, one in four coming from low-income, first-generation backgrounds will drop out within two semesters, and about 90 percent leave school without a degree within six years.

The net effect is devastating: U.S. bachelor degree holders earn about $900,000 more lifetime income and 75% more money annually than those without a degree. Black families possess less than 15% of the median wealth of white families and are three times less wealthy than Hispanic families.

“This partnership is all about closing that gap for these students and their future families,” said Jeffries. MBU is particularly suited for the task, he added, because “our specialty is offering highly personalized, highly hands-on educational experiences within an authentic community setting that’s also affordable.”

With around 1,000 total residential students, Mary Baldwin’s size makes it next to impossible for learners to ghost through their first semester unnoticed and anonymous. The effect is amplified by a positive campus culture: Faculty, staff, alumni supporters and upper-level students make it their mission to cultivate relationships with incoming students and help them find their niche within the #MBUfamily. Veteran diversity, equity, and inclusion thought leader and Chief Diversity Officer Andrea Cornett-Scott has fast-tracked participation in one of the nation’s top programs for students of color—which graduates more than 95% of participants that complete first-year programming.

Jeffries and Munsey have also worked closely with MBU University Advancement to offer Eagle Academy students innovative financial aid packages that, in many cases, bring tuition-related costs to zero.

“All of this is exactly what these students need to ensure they will continue down the path to succeeding in high-impact careers,” Jeffries said.

Opoku, Scotland, and classmate Malakhi Thomas all agreed.

“It’s crazy how at home I feel here,” said Thomas, who plans to study psychology at MBU and become a licensed therapist. “You know nothing’s going to be perfect, but after touring a bunch of other schools, to me, this is as close as it gets. There’s a voice in my head saying, ‘This is right, this is where you belong.’”

Scotland seconded Thomas, but with a caveat: “My only regret is that I can’t start right now—the next couple of months are going to be torture!”

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Mary Baldwin University website. MBU is a Sullivan Foundation partner school.

Berea College Professor/Author Silas House Wins Prestigious LGBTQ Writers Award

Silas House, a New York Times bestselling author and professor at Sullivan Foundation partner school Berea College, has received the Duggins Prize for Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist, a prestigious award given annually to LGBTQ writers.

The prize, dedicated to the memory of author and journalist Jim Duggins, is given annually by Lambda Literary to two novelists and comes with $5,000, making it the largest prize for an LGTBQ writer in the U.S. The other recipient of this year’s Duggins Prize was Vi Khi Nao.

Related: This LGBTQ scholarship is the first of its kind in the SEC

House has gained a reputation as one of the most visible LGBTQ people in the South, particularly in Appalachia and Kentucky. The award focuses on his work about rural LGBTQ people. He was featured prominently in the 2018 Hulu documentary “Hillbilly,” winner of the Media Prize from the Foreign Press Association and many other honors.

House’s 2018 novel, “Southernmost,” is currently in development as a motion picture. His forthcoming novel, “Lark Ascending,” will be published in September. House has also written extensively on LGBTQ issues for the national media, including for The New York Times, The Advocate and other publications. He is a former commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

Silas House’s new novel, “Lark Ascending,” will be released in September. (Photo by C Williams)

“I’ve been a published writer for about 20 years now, and if I have done anything worthwhile in that time, I hope that I have made another LGBTQ person—especially those living in rural places—feel seen and heard the way previous winners of this prize…made me feel seen and heard as a young gay man living in a rural place,” House said in his acceptance speech, filmed for the Lambda Literary Awards, which will happen virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A native of southeastern Kentucky, House now lives in Lexington. He is the NEH Chair of Appalachian Studies at Berea College and serves on the fiction faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University. He is the author of seven novels, one book of creative nonfiction and three plays.

Related: Ignite Retreat coach Brennan Lewis leads the fight for LGBTQ rights

House is the winner of the Storylines Prize from the New York Public Library/NAV Foundation, the Bank Street College Book of the Year Award, the Appalachian Book of the Year, the Judy Gaines Young Book Award, and many others.

The Duggins Prize for Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist honors LGBTQ-identified authors who have published multiple novels, have a strong reputation and following, and show promise to continue publishing high-quality work for years to come. The award is made possible by the James Duggins, PhD Fund for Outstanding Mid-Career LGBTQ Novelists, a fund of the Horizons Foundation.

Previous winners have included Dorothy Allison, Jim Grimsley, Stacey D’Erasmo, and others.

In an interview about the award with Lambda Literary, House paid tribute to other prize recipients who influenced him in his youth. “Dorothy Allison was the first writer I ever read who was exploring issues of class and queerness, and her work completely transformed me and made me feel like my story was valid, too,” he said. “Jim Grimsley’s ‘Dream Boy’ is foundational to me and is a story I could relate to on many layers.”

House said he grew up “devouring” plays by Tennessee Williams and novels by James Baldwin. “The fact that they lived so openly as gay men in that era meant a lot to me,” he said. He added that “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker “blew my mind wide open in every way possible–about sexuality, race, gender, religion, history. I found these books and writers by constantly studying bookstore and library shelves, hoping for an occasional gay story to show up.”

His new novel, “Lark Ascending,” is “a novel that centers on deep grief, which I think most of us have been experiencing on an epic scale for the past few years, whether it be about witnessing environmental devastation, the pandemic or the increasingly vitriolic and bigoted politicians who have been doing so much grandstanding,” House said in the Lambda Literary interview. “But I wanted to shoot that through with light and hope, and its core is a very tender love story between two young men set against a near-future backdrop where love, relationships and sex between queer people have been outlawed.”

This article has been edited and expanded from the original version appearing on the Berea College website.

Home Runs for Gabby: Campbell University Baseball Team Rallies Around No. 1 Fan

The Fighting Camels of Sullivan Foundation partner school Campbell University didn’t make it to the College World Series this year, but it wasn’t for lack of support from their No. 1 fan: Gabby Hernandez. For the last six years, Gabby Hernandez has rolled up to Jim Perry Stadium in her wheelchair, belting cheers for her team—even while fighting for her life.

“No matter what kind of struggle she’s got going on, she makes sure that she’s here for us,” said Drake Pierson, a first-team All Big South Conference first baseman this year as a redshirt junior. “And we make sure that we are here for her.”

Gabby suffers from a life-threatening genetic disorder on Chromosome 22q, leading to multiple physical ailments, including a severe form of epilepsy called myoclonic-astatic. She has faced brain loss in the form of cerebral atrophy, respiratory failure on a half-dozen occasions and has been diagnosed with several other conditions.

Related: Non-speaking student with autism delivers powerful valedictorian speech at Rollins College

While catching something as simple as the flu could be devastating, you wouldn’t know it by watching the teenager cheer on her team.

“They’re always willing to do whatever is going to make her happy,” her mother, Joann Ayala, said. “It means the world to us, just to give her a chance.”

The relationship dates back to the team’s community service trip to the Miracle League of Johnston County. From the moment Gabby laid eyes on the Fighting Camels in 2016, the connection clicked. By the time the 2018 season rolled along, then-freshman Ty Babin saw her splendid smile across the dugout and made sure to make Gabby feel at home.

Ty Babin poses for a photo with Gabby Hernandez and her family.

“I tried to talk to her every game and, whenever she was here with her family, [spent] as much time as I could with her, because it was really obvious to see how much she truly cared about Campbell baseball,” Babin said.

His teammates quickly rallied to support Gabby as well. The players sign autographs for her before every game. Many of them say hello to her during the game in the on-deck circle or even on the field, and everyone makes sure to stick around after the game for any photo request Gabby wants.

“Honestly, I just try to put on a show for her,” Pierson said. ”She’s over there smiling and screaming for all of us to say hello, and it’s really nice to see her find happiness through us.”

Gabby’s voice echoes through Jim Perry Stadium. She knows every name on the Campbell roster and is keenly aware of when to cheer. And that unwavering support is deeply appreciated, according to Pierson. “Whatever it is, whether you got a guy in scoring position or whatever, I’m going to get it done,” he said. “I want to make her smile, make her happy.”

Related: Native American commission meets at Campbell University to forge a path to the future

That desire to make Gabby smile hit close to home for Babin. This past December, the fifth-year first-team All-Conference senior organized a Home Run Derby fundraiser at Jim Perry Stadium. Fans paid to get their cuts in and take batting practice on the field, and the event raised more than $4,800 to help pay medical bills for Gabby’s family.

“I’d like to believe these moments give her a drive to keep going and keep fighting because she does have a lot of illnesses, and we don’t know how long she has left,” her mother said.

While Gabby continues to deal with multiple life-threatening diseases, nothing is more sacred to her than time spent with her boys. Following a series win on April 10, Babin and Pierson noticed Gabby watching kids run the bases from her usual perch by the visitors’ dugout. The players acted immediately, pushing Gabby around the bases so she could be a part of the action.

A Fighting Camels player wheels Gabby around the bases at Jim Perry Stadium.

As Gabby rounded third base, rolling toward the plate in her wheelchair, fans in attendance stood in unison and cheered on the Camels’ biggest fan.

“They treat us like family,” said Elizabeth Ayala, Gabby’s older sister. “They take the time out of their day to talk to us and hang out with us, and it just feels like family.”

“It’s really important to me and our guys to make sure she can enjoy her life on a daily basis,” Pierson said. “If we have any small part in that, then then I want to contribute to that.”

Gabby’s latest miracle came from a phone call she received on Memorial Day. Campbell’s baseball team had earned a spot in the NCAA Regionals, and the entire Ayala family was invited to watch the games in Knoxville, Tenn., as special guests of the team.

“Gabby was just so excited about the news, that’s all she would talk about,” Joann said. “We just really appreciate all the love that we get here from everybody.”

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

Native American Commission Meets at Campbell University to Forge Path to the Future

Native Americans from the coastal region of what is now North Carolina and Virginia were the first to welcome English-speaking explorers and settlers to the New World. Now representatives from North Carolina’s eight American Indian tribes are working with representatives of Sullivan Foundation partner school Campbell University to find new ways to work together for the betterment of all.

The North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs held its second meeting this year at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., on June 3-4 to discuss important issues facing Native Americans in the state and set goals and initiatives for the coming year. They’re laying the groundwork for a partnership that both sides hope will continue to grow in the coming years, according to Dr. Alfred Bryant, dean of CU’s School of Education & Human Sciences and a member of the Lumbee tribe based in Pembroke.

According to U.S. Census data, there were roughly 6.79 million Native Americans living across the U.S. in 2020. But indigenous Americans have often been left behind in the ongoing quest for greater social equity, and data on their financial wellbeing is hard to find. A report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition notes that the U.S. “has too often hindered Native American advancement, not advanced it. Through years of intentional governmental policies that removed lands and resources, American Indians have been separated from the wealth and assets that were rightfully theirs. Today, we still see a lack of information on Native Americans and their socioeconomic issues. Data is sparse and inconsistent.”

Related: Furman University presents land acknowledgement to Cherokee Nation

That report notes that, per U.S. Census data in 2018, Native Americans had the highest poverty rate among all minority groups in the U.S. at 25.4% compared to a 20.8% poverty rate for Black or African-Americans, 17.6% for Hispanics and 8.1% for the white population.

“When I came to Campbell, I started talking to [Executive Vice President] John Roberson about how the university can get more involved with some of our nearby American Indian tribes,” Bryant said. “Harnett and Sampson counties are home to the Coharie, so why not try to form a relationship that benefits all involved? The group first came here in December and had such a great experience on campus that they asked what I thought about hosting the June meeting as well. We would love for this to become an annual stop for them.”

Campbell is an ideal location for Commission meetings, he added, because of its central location and available facilities. It’s also a short drive for members of the Cohari, Lumbee and Waccamaw Siouan tribes. Visitors of the June meeting stayed overnight in on-campus residence halls, which were vacated by students in May.

N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs Executive Director Greg Richardson, Campbell University School of Education & Human Sciences Dean Alfred Bryant, and NCDIA Chairman Ricky Burnett.

Pamela Cashwell, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Administration, said June’s meetings covered typical topics discussed in quarterly meetings while looking toward the future and considering long-term goals and ways to have a stronger voice in Raleigh, N.C.

“A lot of this week is about strategic planning and visioning sessions—really the first steps of planning for the next three years,” she said. “And honestly, we’re doing a little bit of a reset before we move forward.”

The Commission of Indian Affairs consists of 21 representatives of the American Indian community, two representatives appointed by the General Assembly and one representative each appointed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Administration, the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources and the Commissioner of Labor.

The 21 representatives selected from North Carolina’s recognized tribes are selected by tribal or community consent. They represent the Coharie, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, the Haliwa Saponi, the Lumbee, the Meherrin, the Waccamaw-Siouan, the Sappony and the Native Americans located in urban areas (Cumberland, Wake, Guilford and Mecklenburg counties).

The commission was created in 1971 by the General Assembly in response to requests from concerned tribal leaders who felt their voices weren’t being heard at the state level. There are roughly 122,000 American Indians living in North Carolina, giving the state the largest population east of the Mississippi River and eighth largest in the nation.

Bo Taylor and Ty Oocumma are citizens of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. (Photo by FeatherSpeak/Facebook)

Archaeological evidence indicates that Native Americans were living in what is now North Carolina at least 12,000 years ago. Sir Walter Raleigh founded the first English settlement in the New World in present-day Dare County, North Carolina. It became known as the “lost colony of Roanoake” after its supplies dried up and its inhabitants went missing—possibly assimilated into local indigenous communities.

Greg Richardson, the commission’s executive director, said a big part of the June meetings at Campbell University was the subject of leadership—improving leadership capabilities internally and at the state level.

“We think Campbell University could host future leadership training opportunities in the future,” Richardson said. “It’s a place where we could bring our tribal leaders together—in a more formal setting—and maybe host weekend-long sessions where they could earn certification in a number of areas. We want to enhance our tribal leaders’ ability to run their programs effectively.”

“Campbell has grown so much in recent years,” added commission chairman Ricky Burnett. “And to have an environment like this—in a university setting—is just such a positive thing for us. I’m truly enjoying being here, and I’m excited about building a relationship with a school like Campbell going forward.”

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

Campuswide Collaboration Brings Period Equity to Furman University

By Kelley Bruss, Furman University

It started out as homework. But sometimes an idea demands more than a grade. This one called for action.

Thanks to changemakers at Sullivan Foundation partner school Furman University, Periods2Progress will provide free, organic period products in more than 50 bathrooms across campus beginning this summer.

“It’s about time,” said Olivia Glad, a post-baccalaureate fellow for the women’s, gender and sexuality studies program at Furman.

The project came to life through extensive collaboration: academics, facilities, an internship, a fellowship, grants and budgets. Morgan Abell, a Furman senior who partnered with Glad on the project, said it would have been easy for the different entities to be unaware of the ways their ideas and funding might align. “At Furman, we made that connection,” she said.

Related: This Sullivan Foundation alumnus is leading menstrual equity reform at Wofford College

The initial concept was drafted by some of Savita Nair’s students. Nair is a professor of history and Asian studies and director of women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

Nair’s Issues in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies class ends with an advocacy project in which groups of students develop ideas, usually campus-based, and write hypothetical implementation plans. In 2016, one of those projects explored providing free period products on campus. The supplies are costly on their own and taxed like luxuries, Nair said, when, in fact, they’re medical necessities.

“There are students for whom it is prohibitively expensive,” she said.

Olivia Glad and Morgan Abell of Furman University’s Periods2Progress project.

Nair received approval for a post-baccalaureate fellow in the WGSS program and hired Glad. When they began to brainstorm ways to serve students’ needs, work toward equity and grow visibility for the program, Nair remembered that class assignment from several years back.

Glad loved it. She wrote a grant application and submitted it to Furman’s diversity, equity and inclusion office. The $900 grant would serve as seed money but wasn’t enough to sustain long-term change.

But the facilities department was ready to join the effort. Custodial manager Jim Benes knew it was a great idea when he first talked with Nair. With the support of Rick Schosky, director of facility services, he agreed to put the ongoing costs into his budget.

Related: Elizabeth Bonker, non-speaking student with autism, delivers powerful valedictorian speech at Rollins College

Furman is “a family,” Benes said. “And once we put our mind to something, we agree on it. We just get it done.”

Through an alumni connection, Benes knew of a Boston-based company, TOP The Organic Project, and suggested they might make a good partner. TOP supplies eco-friendly, organic cotton period products with plant-based applicators.

Abell connected with Nair and Glad last winter and interned with TOP during the spring semester. In addition to her work as a research and data analyst for TOP, she helped coordinate Periods2Progress.

The Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities co-sponsored the Earth Day launch and provided reusable menstrual cups for distribution alongside TOP’s sample packs of tampons and pads.

Admittedly, “period products” wasn’t a great opening line at the table outside the library. “We got them in with, ‘You want free stickers? You want free pins?’” Glad said, laughing.

But there was genuine interest once they got beyond freebies and into conversation. Abell was especially surprised by how many students took a menstrual cup. They had heard of them but had been hesitant to invest without knowing how they’d work.

The launch also included a display of the dispensers, which were donated by TOP. They are going into every female and gender-neutral bathroom in academic buildings and the dining hall.

Periods2Progress will probably mostly help those who are caught off guard by a period or who forgot to throw products in their bags in the morning. But Abell said she hopes it won’t be long before someone goes further, “getting to the issue of period product insecurity.”

She would love to see free packs available for students to pick up as needed.

Glad is finishing her fellowship this spring and a new fellow, Riley Hughes, will come on board for 2022-23. But Glad hopes Periods2Progress is just the beginning. She wants more visibility for issues related to women’s health.

“I just hope this is something people will continue to see the value in,” she said.

This article has been slightly edited from the original version appearing on the Furman University website.

Three Rollins Students Have Set the Stage for a New Generation of Florida Changemakers

By Stephanie Rizzo, Rollins College

Like students across the nation, sociology major Emily Curran and religious studies major Leah Hornik of Rollins College were engaging in a lot of personal reflection in early 2020.

The friends and roommates had been volunteering with the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center (HMREC) as part of the Bonner Leaders Program, which pairs service-minded scholars with local nonprofits. As the country grappled with a long-overdue racial reckoning while simultaneously adjusting to the new normal of living through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, the political atmosphere was charged, and the moment was ripe for activism.

“I remember sitting in a Zoom meeting with Emily and HMREC’s director of operations,” recalled Hornik, a political activist who has worked with Florida state house representative Anna Eskamani and Winter Park mayor Phil Anderson. “We knew that students in Florida needed resources, but we all felt strongly that the resources needed to have an immediate impact that young people could apply in the moment.”

Meanwhile, HMREC was poised to break ground on an all-new 40,000-square-foot facility in the heart of downtown Orlando. The directors were looking for ways to scale the programming to the new space and renew the mission to fight oppression in all forms. More than anything, they wanted the expansion to reach Florida’s youth, to invigorate a new generation of activists and give them the tools and connections to address some of the systemic problems facing everyday citizens.

Related: Non-speaking student with autism delivers powerful valedictory speech at Rollins College

Kaylee Klatt, Leah Hornik and Emily Curran (Photo by Scott Cook/Rollins College)

Given Curran’s and Hornik’s skills, knowledge and contributions up to that point, the center’s directors invited them to play a key role in an exciting new venture—the Take Action Institute (TAI), connecting them to hundreds of student activists across the state and setting the stage for big impact.

“Our mission is to use the lessons of the Holocaust to take action against all forms of bigotry and prejudice,” said Curran, who was co-valedictorian of her graduating class this year and starts a PhD program in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania this fall. “We provide resources and connections to effectively tackle injustice and help dismantle structures of oppression.”

In addition to providing resources to both high-school and college-age activists looking to make a difference in their communities, the Take Action Institute offers long-term training in community engagement. Members join a cohort of young activists from all over Florida in a year-long program that offers mentorships and a plethora of resources, like printed materials, interactive webinars, podcasts and volunteer opportunities for burgeoning changemakers. Members finish out the initiative by conceiving and executing a service project in their community.

Delving into Data
Curran is continually thinking about ways to leverage her skills for good. In August 2020, she was taking on more responsibility at HMREC, and the more she learned about the organization’s mission, the more it aligned with her passion to use sociology as a lens to parse systemic injustice.

She’d spent time volunteering with the Rollins Student Support Foundation, which provides financial support to students for resources not covered by financial aid. She knew that the best way to make a case for funding was by demonstrating a need for resources. Luckily, she’d built a solid foundation for research practices in her classes.

“By drawing upon the research methods I was learning in my sociology classes and collaborating with the directors of HMREC, I was able to apply my skills to the work I was doing at the center,” Curran said. “I started by evaluating data related to the center’s programming to better determine the needs of the organization. It was really exciting to grow academically and professionally while simultaneously helping grow HMREC’s programs.”

Related: How Elizabeth Smith of Rollins College became an advocate of disability rights

The more Curran analyzed the data, the more apparent it became that visitors, especially those aged 16 to 25, wanted to do more than simply reflect upon the legacy of the Holocaust—they wanted to take the lessons learned and apply them to the current moment.

“That was something I saw over and over in the evaluations I was doing,” Curran said. “We were doing an excellent job meeting the needs of some of the older members of our community, specifically the Jewish members. But beyond that, our scope wasn’t advancing our mission to engage in widespread activism. And that felt really important to the center moving forward.”

For the next nine months, Curran served tirelessly as the Take Action Institute’s first-ever student chair, helping design the initial programming and plan the initiative’s inaugural conference for student leaders. She solicited support from Rollins’ Office of Student Affairs, which brought Rollins College on as an official sponsor of TAI last year. It’s a partnership that Curran says fits perfectly with Rollins’ mission to engage with the community—and one handed down from her own mentors at Rollins.

“Throughout this process, I relied on so many people like Bailey Clark from the Center for Leadership & Community Engagement and Micki Meyer, assistant vice president of student affairs for engagement,” Curran said. “They were able to help me navigate many of the challenges that come with working for a nonprofit.”

Photo by Scott Cook/Rollins College

Leadership Lessons
Around the same time that Curran and Hornik were brought into the fold, Kayley Klatt, an international business major, invited Lisa Bachman, senior operations director at HMREC, to be a guest on her show, “The Choose Kindness Podcast,” which she had started a few months earlier in response to the pandemic.

“I wanted to make a difference in the lives of people who were lonely during lockdown,” Klatt said. “And I was motivated to educate people on the effects of bullying, which is something I experienced growing up and a cause that remains close to my heart.”

Klatt made such an impression that Bachman immediately invited her to join the student-led task force that was helping develop the Take Action Institute’s inaugural conference. While Curran led the charge as student-chair and Hornik used her political background to garner speakers, Klatt put her experience to work as the head of the marketing committee.

Related: Rollins College alumnus Tony Lembeck creates safe haven for families affected by AIDS

“I leaned on lessons I’d learned in Rollins’ Women in Finance program, which was a catalyst for the confidence I needed in the months that the Take Action Institute was coming together,” Klatt recalled. “I’m incredibly grateful to be able to turn the knowledge I’ve gained into action every day at TAI and beyond.”

Curran also drew on various leadership positions she held on campus, from her experiences through the Bonner program to extracurriculars like her position on the Rollins women’s swim team.

“Being in leadership roles at Rollins showed me the politics that come with navigating the institutional bureaucracies that guide the work we’re able to do at the Take Action Institute,” Curran said. “Being able to communicate effectively with staff members, board members and community leaders in a way that was respectful and tactful but also wasn’t compromising my own personal position or viewpoints was something that Rollins had already prepared me to do.”

Leah Hornik (Photo by Scott Cook/Rollins College)

Poised to Pivot
While the world was in the midst of change, Hornik was contemplating a change in major from international relations to religion, inspired in part by the work she was doing through HMREC. Hornik is Jewish and lived in Israel for a year before attending Rollins, but she said her focus was always on politics rather than history.

“In a lot of ways, my own Holocaust education started with my work at HMREC,” said Hornik. “I’ve always been interested in Middle Eastern politics—I’m minoring in Jewish studies and Middle Eastern and North African studies—and I grew up hearing about the Holocaust in synagogue. But the piece that I was missing was the action part.”

The more Hornik worked with TAI, the more she realized that religion and politics can be linked through a common goal to serve others. What if she could blend those passions and work directly with other young people as an educator, ensuring that a new generation passes on the lessons of the previous one? Encouraged by her advisor, religion professor Yudit Greenberg, Hornik changed her major to religious studies and never looked back.

The switch led to a summer internship with the David Labkovski Project in Los Angeles, which honors the work of the famous artist and Holocaust survivor of the same name.

“When I got back from Los Angeles, I remember telling the directors at the center that I’d finally found my career path,” said Hornik, who was named lead education specialist at HMREC this past year.

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

Emily Curran (left) and Kaylee Klatt (Photo by Scott Cook/Rollins College)

Armed for Action
In January 2021, 400 representatives from over 50 high schools and colleges from across the state converged upon the Hilton Orlando to attend the first-ever Take Action Institute Conference, where they heard from local leaders, politicians and scholars.

“We designed the conference to provide attendees with immediate resources,” noted Hornik, who worked with Pulse survivor and Equity Florida press secretary Brandon Wolf during the event. “We wanted people to walk out of the building and have the tools they need to organize right that minute.”

Now that Curran has graduated from Rollins and is preparing to start her PhD program, she’s passing the torch to Klatt, who will take over as student co-chair of TAI next year. Set to graduate in December, Hornik is continuing her work as a Holocaust educator in an effort to forge a lifetime career out of activism education.

Based on the success of its first year of programming, the Take Action Institute is ramping up its commitment to providing community resources.

“This year, we’re implementing six equity and justice-based issue networks led by student board members,” Klatt said. “The idea is for members of the institute to be able to advocate for causes that are personally meaningful on a policy level. I’m so excited to see our students turn their visions into action.”

For the trio of activists, it’s a fitting culmination to an experience that’s propelled each of them to the next step on their Rollins journeys and beyond. “I’ve learned that there are a lot of changemakers in my generation,” Hornik said. “And we’re going to make change for years to come.”

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

Non-Speaking Student With Autism Delivers Powerful Valedictorian Speech

Elizabeth Bonker delivered a powerful valedictorian speech that many at Sullivan Foundation partner school Rollins College will never forget—and she never said a word.

Bonker, who is affected by non-speaking autism, hasn’t spoken since she was 15 months old. She communicates solely by typing and used text-to-speech software to inspire her fellow graduates to serve others, recognize the value in everyone they meet and “be the light.”

“The world,” she told them, can’t wait to see our light shine.”

Read the full text of Elizabeth Bonker’s valedictorian speech here.

Bonker is the founder of the nonprofit, Communication 4 ALL, whose mission is to “champion efforts to ensure communication is available to all non-speakers with autism.” She’s a poet, a lyricist and the co-author of the book, “I Am In Here,” which describes her journey as a non-speaking child with autism and how she found her voice without speaking aloud.

That voice rang clear and strong in Bonker’s valedictorian address.

“Today we celebrate our shared achievements,” Bonker said. “I know something about shared achievements because I am affected by a form of autism that doesn’t allow me to speak. My neuromotor issues also prevent me from tying my shoes or buttoning a shirt without assistance. I have typed this speech with one finger with a communication partner holding a keyboard. I am one of the lucky few non-speaking autistics who have been taught to type. That one critical intervention unlocked my mind from its silent cage, enabling me to communicate and to be educated like my hero, Helen Keller.”

“My situation may be extreme,” she added, “but I believe Rollins has shown all of us how sharing gives meaning to life.”

Bonker has “spoken” at many events, including the Autism Society’s Town Hall and an Ashoka Changemakers conference. She has been spotlighted by PBS and TedMed and in the documentary film, “In Our Own Hands: How Patients Are Reinventing Medicine.”

In April, she released two songs from a 10-song album, titled “I Am In Here.” She wrote the lyrics, and the Boston-based band The Bleeding Hearts wrote and performed the music. One of the songs, “Silent Cage,” features guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.

As a changemaker, Bonker is following in the footsteps of another Rollins College hero: Fred Rogers, who received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award in 2001. In her speech, she recalled a story about the beloved Mister Rogers. “When he died, a handwritten note was found in his wallet. It said, ‘Life is for service.’ You have probably seen it on the plaque by Strong Hall. Life is for service. So simple, yet so profound.”

Bonker continued: “We are all called to serve, as an everyday act of humility, as a habit of mind. To see the worth in every person we serve. To strive to follow the example of those who chose to share their last crust of bread. For to whom much is given, much is expected.”

“God gave you a voice,” she said. “Use it. And, no, the irony of a non-speaking autistic encouraging you to use your voice is not lost on me. Because if you see the worth in me, then you can see the worth in everyone you meet.”

Catawba College Offering More Scholarships to Students from the Catawba Nation

The Catawba Nation has lived along the banks of the Catawba River in South Carolina for at least 6,000 years. The Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto encountered them in 1540 as he marched his troops across the Piedmont region in search of gold. Later, the Catawba welcomed European settlers to their ancestral land, but these latecomers—or invaders— brought diseases like smallpox to the Catawba, reducing the population to less than 1,000 by 1760.

Today, the Catawba people stand tall and proud, describing themselves as “the tribe of tomorrow, today.” And now more members of the Catawba Nation will have the chance to build their own tomorrow through higher education, thanks to a new agreement reached with Sullivan Foundation partner school Catawba College, located in Salisbury, N.C.

Back in 2007, the Catawba Nation and Catawba College came together to discuss the name of the college’s athletic teams’ nickname, the Indians. They reached an agreement to allow the use of the name in exchange for a scholarship for a Catawba student. The initial agreement allowed one student to receive a four-year scholarship every four years. In April of this year, that agreement was updated to offer a four-year scholarship to a new Catawba Nation student every year.

Related: Sullivan Award recipient Gabriel Carrilho helped bring clean water to village in Ecuador

The change reflects ongoing collaborations to further strengthen the relationship between Catawba College and the Catawba Nation. The goal is to offer more educational resources and opportunities for tribal students while teaching Catawba College students about the rich history and culture of the Catawba Nation.

“Catawba College and the Catawba Nation have been intrinsically linked since the college’s founding over 170 years ago,” said Dr. Jared R. Tice, senior vice president for the college experience and dean of students at Catawba College. “This new annual scholarship offering further demonstrates the strengthened partnership of our two communities working together to advance the educational opportunities for Catawba citizens. We look forward to creating additional pathways and opportunities with the Nation in the very near future.”

“We are excited to see the partnership between the Catawba Nation and Catawba College grow, and in turn, to see the educational opportunities for young Catawba citizens multiply,” Catawba Nation Chief Bill Harris said.

To be eligible for the Catawba College Scholarship, Catawba students must provide a copy of their Tribal ID and meet other eligibility requirements for admission.

As a general rule, there will be one full-tuition Catawba Indian Nation Scholarship available each academic year, inclusive of all merit scholarships already awarded. The scholarship does not cover on-campus room and board or book costs. However, each student receiving the scholarship can still receive additional scholarships to cover those costs. Like any other scholarship recipient, the recipient must remain in good academic standing with Catawba College while carrying a full-time class load except in their final semester or due to extenuating personal circumstances.

Last October, Catawba College received a $200 million gift to its endowment, the largest in its history, putting the school in line with nearby colleges and universities like the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, according to the Salisbury Post. That gift means Catawba College now has one of the highest endowment-per-student ratios in the region.

This article has been edited and expanded from the original version appearing on the Catawba College website.

Campbell University Law School Works to Prevent Evictions in Pandemic Economy

Campbell University’s law school has joined a national initiative to address the housing and eviction crisis in response to the U.S. Attorney General’s Call to Action to the Legal Profession.

Along with Campbell Law, 98 other law schools in 35 states and Puerto Rico have committed to help prevent evictions. Over just a few months last year, law students across the country dedicated nearly 81,000 hours to provide legal assistance to households and communities across the country.

Campbell Law and other law schools are drawing on resources—such as pro bono and externship programs, clinical offerings and the service of the larger law school community—to help struggling families avoid eviction. They’re offering rental assistance application support, volunteering with legal aid providers, and helping courts implement eviction diversion programs, among other initiatives aimed at increasing housing stability and access to justice.

Campbell Law School Professor Ashley Campbell, director of the Blanchard Community Law Clinic, and Professor Tolu Adewale have been working closely with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Raleigh office to take landlord tenant cases pro bono this semester.

Related: Ignite Retreat coach Brennan Lewis leads the fight for LGTBQ rights

“The clinic will be representing clients in summary ejectment hearings in small claims court in Wake County,” Campbell said. “Professor Adewale and I handled landlord/tenant cases during our respective time at Legal Aid. In addition, all of our students in the clinic class are reading, ‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’ by Matthew Desmond.”

On January 28, Attorney General Merrick Garland convened 99 law schools to take part in the initiative. “Five months ago, I asked the legal community to answer the call to help Americans facing eviction,” Garland said in a Zoom press conference. “Law students and lawyers from across the country stepped up to take on cases and assisted their clients and communities at a time when our country needed it the most. Today, our work is far from over, and making real the promise of equal justice under law remains our urgent and unfinished mission.”

During the press conference, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said, “The housing crisis is a poverty and economic security issue because of the long-lasting effects that we know evictions have on families. It’s a racial and gender justice issue because of the disproportionate effect the spike in evictions will have on women and people of color. That’s why I have encouraged courts to adopt eviction diversion as an essential tool for keeping people in their homes and landlords to access rental assistance during the pandemic.”

Related: Fast-growing restaurant chain to help build a prison-to-college pipeline

Garland’s call to action is part of the Biden-Harris administration’s all-of-government approach to help millions of families keep up on rent and remain in their homes. These efforts—along with the distribution of $25 to $30 billion distributed to more than 3 million households in need through the American Rescue Plan Emergency Rental Assistance program in 2021—has led to increased access to counsel and eviction diversion in jurisdictions across the country. It has also kept eviction filing rates below 60% of averages in a typical year.

“Eviction Lab data shows that in the four full months since the end of the eviction moratorium in August, eviction filings have remained below 60% of historical levels,” Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said. “The data shows that this program is working, keeping hundreds of thousands of families safely housed.”

This article has been edited and condensed from the original version appearing on the Campbell University website.

How Elizabeth Smith of Rollins College Became an Advocate for Disability Rights

By Stephanie Rizzo, Rollins College

Many students experience a culture shock when they transition from high school to college, but some experiences are more challenging than others. Take Elizabeth Smith, a communication studies and music double major at Sullivan Foundation partner school Rollins College. The former homeschooler has a neurologic condition that significantly impacts her heart, making it difficult to stand and walk for extended periods, so she uses a wheelchair on days when she’s going to be out and about.

“Being homeschooled meant my environment was already adapted to me, regarding my stamina with getting around the house, so I didn’t have to use a mobility aid,” she said. “Going to college marked the first time in my life where I was using a wheelchair daily.”

Suddenly, Smith found herself encountering physical barriers she hadn’t anticipated. A loose brick in the road, for instance, can pose a major problem for people navigating the world in a wheelchair. Rollins’ Office of Accessibility Services oversees efforts to create an all-around accessible campus, even offering personalized accommodations for disabled students, but for Smith, the problem was much more personal. She felt socially out of sync with her peers.

“From my perspective, people were treating me differently because I was in a wheelchair,” she said. “I don’t think they were intentionally trying to be hurtful, but rather that they didn’t quite know how to approach the topic of my disability or my needs.”

Related: This George Mason University student is a champion for people with disabilities who need organ transplants

Rollins communication professor Sarah Parsloe (foreground) and Elizabeth Smith partnered on a research project focused on boosting accessibility for college students with disabilities. (Photo by Scott Cook/Rollins College)

Facing Down Challenges
This phenomenon, known in communication studies as communication apprehension, is well-documented, said Rollins communication professor Sarah Parsloe, who worked with Smith on a research project this past summer through Rollins’ Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program.

“Communication apprehension often occurs in situations where people are trying to accommodate differences,” Parsloe said. “This applies to all sorts of cultural differences, such as encountering someone who speaks a different language, or, in Elizabeth’s case, someone who is a member of the disability community. Most people mean well, but they don’t know exactly how to approach these topics. As a result, people can essentially over-accommodate or shut down communication altogether for fear of saying the wrong thing.”

Smith’s biggest challenge was the question of identity. While at home during her teen years, she avoided claiming her disability identity. Once at Rollins, she had to face this aspect of herself, utilizing a mobility aid and navigating the social and physical challenges.

Due to this overwhelming identity shift, Smith returned to campus in the fall of her second year pushing herself not to use a mobility aid. But “abandoning” this aspect of her identity came with a price as her health declined. Then in spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic sent everyone home.

“Everything went virtual, and suddenly, I was at home again,” Smith recalled. “All of my infrastructure challenges vanished. I no longer had to worry about finding accessible parking or sticking out due to my wheelchair. I found that people in my classes were more willing to talk to me, and my stamina improved because I wasn’t trying to navigate campus or hide my disability.”

While the shift to virtual learning was valuable for Smith, she realized it was a temporary measure. She began to imagine what it might mean to advocate for disability rights once in-person learning resumed.

Related: Ignite Retreat coach Brennan Lewis leads the fight for LGBTQ rights

Smith (left) and with Sarah Parsloe (right)

Liberal Arts in Action
Smith’s newfound energy meant she had more bandwidth for things like student organizations and opportunities outside the classroom. She joined the Student Government Association (SGA) and earned a virtual fellowship through the Global Livingston Institute, where she worked to improve public health outreach in Rwanda and Uganda. She also started thinking critically about her own identity, exploring what it means to be a disability advocate. What if she shifted her focus away from trying to hide part of her identity and leaned into her own experiences as a catalyst for change?

Enter the research project that Smith conducted with Parsloe, who realized that Smith’s story, while deeply personal, perfectly illustrated the need for more options when it came to upping accessibility standards in higher education. The pair got to work examining how the shift to virtual learning affected students with different abilities and how issues of accessibility are changing as the pandemic is changing.

Smith had already worked to pass SGA legislation related to accessibility as an Accessibility Senator during her junior year. She saw a summer research project as an opportunity to gather more data that could be used to inform additional changes. On top of funding granted through the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program, Smith and Parsloe received a grant from the Rollins Diversity Council.

Related: How Ignite Retreat speaker Sanah Javani learned to love her natural self

The Researcher as Subject
In Summer 2021, Parsloe and Smith officially launched their research project, titled “COVID as a Catalyst: Shifting Experiences of Disability and (Mis)Fitting in the College Classroom.” They interviewed 16 students with physical, mental and learning-based disabilities to better understand how issues of accessibility changed with and through the pandemic. Among the experiences recorded in the data were Smith’s own.

“I was able to approach this project as an autoethnographic researcher, which means including my own personal reflections in our research,” Smith said. “I learned so much by listening to other students who also had disabilities. I felt more in tune with that community, and I started to see my own identity differently.”

Smith and Parsloe’s research showed that students with disabilities commonly engage in something called masking, where they try to appear as nondisabled as possible. The tendency to appear “normal” often stems from environmental challenges and internalized ableism. Though the pandemic was traumatic in many ways, it also had some unexpected positive effects in the way it normalized accommodations like virtual learning.

Smith and Parsloe presented their findings at a poster-board session for Rollins’ Board of Trustees and at the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language & Gender (OSCLG) 2021 virtual conference. They intend to share their research at another upcoming conference and are planning to publish their work in an academic journal.

Related: University of Kentucky students spread “Rae of Sunshine” to combat stigma of mental illness 

Smith works with students in Sarah Parsloe’s Disability and Social Change RCC course.

Looking Ahead
Since concluding their research, Parsloe and Smith have continued working together to address systemic issues of ableism in higher education and advocate for more inclusive policies. Smith has been a guest speaker and facilitator in Parsloe’s Rollins College Conference (RCC) course, Disability and Social Change, where they worked with first-year students to plan the first-ever Rollins Disability Empowerment Week, held during the week of March 7, 2022.

“The whole idea is to expose students to the idea of ableism—to get them to understand the ways in which ableism is embedded in our society, where it comes from, how it circulates in the language we use, and how it shows up in our actions,” Parsloe said.

Change is incremental, but Smith is in it for the long haul and credits Rollins for the freedom and opportunity to discover her passion. She’s much more confident in her ability to speak on behalf of herself and her peers. She’s worked closely with Bethann Durlin, Rollins’ director of accessibility services, and has started brainstorming ways to create more inclusive spaces for students with disabilities at Rollins.

And it’s working. Smith, Parsloe and Durlin recently campaigned to reinstate handicap parking that had been shut down due to construction, and Rollins College worked with its contractors to make sure those spaces were safe and available. Some of the proposed changes include a disability ally training program, earmarking funds for infrastructure changes, and launching yearly Disability Empowerment Week programming.

Smith has continued to expand her involvement at Rollins as she returned to campus her senior year, serving as the Student Life Chair for SGA, president of the Pre-Law Society, and a social media ambassador for Rollins’ Office of Marketing. She is a member of the inaugural class of Hamilton Holt School students pursuing an accelerated master’s of public health degree. This summer, she’ll continue to build her experience when she undertakes her master’s practicum with The Lifeboat Project, an organization dedicated to combatting human trafficking.

“Being involved in the conversation has helped a lot,” Smith said. “I feel supported, empowered, and that people are listening.”

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