By Owen Covington, Elon University

Eighteen members of Elon University’s class of 2025 spent nearly a week in July performing volunteer work and learning about Elon as they prepared to begin their time at the university.

The students were taking part in Engage, a new student program sponsored by the Kernodle Center for Civic Life. In a group exercise on a recent Friday in McKinnon Hall, the students gathered in a circle and tossed a ball of yarn to each other. Each student held on to a section of the yarn and tossed it over to the next person. The yarn strung between the rising freshmen, along with a team of current Elon students and staff members, symbolized the connections they had all developed throughout the week.

“We’re hopeful that this experience makes you feel more equipped to begin your time at Elon,” Kyle Anderson, assistant director of the Kernodle Center for Civic Life, told the group. “Hopefully, you have a better sense of campus, you’ve built some connections, and you’ve learned how you can build connections in the local community as well.”

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Held each summer on Elon’s campus, Engage offers an introduction to the university and the community for incoming students. The four-day residential program, which is headed by current student leaders, provided them the opportunity to learn not just where dining halls, the library and classrooms are, but to begin to understand Elon’s place within the county and region as well as the growing number of partnerships Elon has with the community.

Throughout their time at Elon, these students participated in service work with community partners, including Habitat for Humanity of Alamance County and the Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club of Burlington. The students also worked at Elon’s Loy Farm, where produce is grown and used by local groups such as Allied Churches of Alamance County.

Meanwhile, workshops were held at Elon’s Office of Sustainability and the Makers Hub to provide a look at ways that students could get involved on campus. A campus scavenger hunt sent them across Elon’s sprawling campus, giving them a look at their university home that went beyond the campus tours they may have participated in. The week included trips to Alamance County, N.C. locations like Mebane and Graham, as well as to Greensboro in Guilford County, N.C., where they visited the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

But beyond the programming, Engage offered a chance to begin building lifetime relationships with fellow students. Fancy Mitchell, a student from Ocala, Florida, said Engage opened her eyes to how the college experience can be a time for personal growth and connections with a much broader group of people.

“This program helped me spread my wings and show my light in a way that I felt like I was restricted from doing where I come from,” Mitchell said at the program’s conclusion. “The idea that I can see so many people’s perspectives at one time and engage in conversation about important issues is exciting.”

During two panel discussions, Engage participants heard from students and then from faculty and staff members about a range of topics related to being part of the Elon community. During the faculty and staff discussion on the program’s final day, students heard about favorite Elon traditions, gained advice on how to manage their time as students, and learned about the range of ways to be involved on campus.

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As they all held onto the single long piece of yarn connecting them all at the conclusion of Engage, each student offered a highlight from the week, with many talking about how the experience helped make them feel more comfortable as they prepare to begin their academic careers at Elon in a few weeks. Many talked about how the conclusion of their high school careers had been marked by virtual classes and a loss of in-person connections with their classmates and teachers.

“I’ve hardly been able to see people in person,” said Maria Ledin of Chapel Hill, N.C. “I am glad I can go to Elon this year with some familiarity and some faces that I’m now familiar with. That is so important to me.”

Carson Pridgen, a member of the student leadership team, said her favorite part of the week was seeing how the students arrived not knowing each other but departed with personal connections they will draw on when they return to campus in August. “I saw these friendships and relationships develop in real time,” Pridgen told the group. “I think it’s really valuable that you already know these other people. You already have those familiar faces. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you guys are going to accomplish at Elon.”

This article has been edited from the original version appearing on Elon University’s website.

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