By Michael Abernethy, Elon University
The Freedom Scholars—a college access program for local high school students focused on the study of democracy and civic engagement—will launch at Elon University, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, this summer thanks to a $300,000 Teagle Foundation Knowledge for Freedom grant.
The program includes a two-week residential experience at Elon for 15 rising Alamance-Burlington School System (North Carolina) high school seniors, a year of programming and college application support, and one-on-one mentoring by Elon undergraduates and area civic leaders. With the support of their mentors, each scholar will plan and execute a civic project in their home community. At the end of their senior year, they will present their work at the Freedom Scholars Symposium, which also will serve as the welcoming event for the incoming cohort of scholars.
“Young people have spearheaded many significant changes taking place in our country and across the world in the past few years,” said Associate Professor of English Prudence Layne, who conceived of the program. “As an educator, it is my duty to help prepare our youth to confront the challenges facing our world and create sustainable change. The Elon Freedom Scholars are another line of defense in this work. I can’t wait to see what they will accomplish.”
The Freedom Scholars program is designed for high-achieving students planning to enroll in college and tailored for first-generation college-bound students, families with high financial need and those from marginalized communities. Participation in the program is free. Other benefits include an $800 honorarium; connection to a constellation of mentors among Elon faculty, staff, students and local leaders; access to Elon’s campus resources; and planned outings and events.
The Teagle Foundation’s 42-month Knowledge for Freedom grant was awarded to Layne, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Lauren Guilmette, and Assistant Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies Joel Shelton this fall. The Teagle Foundation works to support and strengthen liberal arts education in service of effective citizenship and meaningful lives. Its Knowledge for Freedom programs invite underserved high school students to study and engage with literature and philosophies that raise deep questions about leading lives of purpose and civic responsibility.
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In 2020, Layne was awarded a $25,000 planning grant from the Teagle Foundation to design the program with other Elon faculty and staff including Guilmette, Shelton and Assistant Professor of Philosophy Ryan Johnson.
Guilmette will lead the scholars in an introductory philosophy course for college credit titled “How Should We Live?” They’ll study democracy, freedom and leadership using classic texts by Plato with writings by contemporary scholars. The course will give students modern inroads and contexts for understanding ideas that have transcended cultures and time.
“These are timeless questions,” Guilmette said. “We want to make these classics live for our students and offer them a welcoming way into these discussions.”
Along with Layne, Shelton will advise Elon’s undergraduate mentors. He said great care went into planning the course and structure of the scholars’ experience.
“We’re aiming to make these topics—freedom, citizenship, democracy—accessible to these terrific high school students in ways that will help them to think differently about the problems and opportunities that exist in their communities and to engage in their communities in ways that strengthen them,” Shelton said.
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After their two weeks on campus, scholars will return for monthly programs and meetings with mentors in support of their college application process as well as workshops on leadership, college financial literacy and similar subjects.
“Scholars will become ambassadors for their communities,” Layne said, by leading walking tours of their neighborhoods, identifying unmet needs and working with their mentors to improve their community. This will culminate in the Freedom Scholars Symposium during the spring of their senior year, where they will present their project to the public, area leaders and the incoming cohort of scholars.
Ashley Tatum, a senior at Elon, assisted faculty in planning the program and believes the Freedom Scholars will strengthen the community through shared work and knowledge.
“The program itself presents a unique opportunity for civic leaders within the community to pass their skills to the upcoming generation of leaders, for Elon students and faculty to engage in enriching mentorship relationships with students … who already possess an abundance of curiosity, creativity, and potential, and for students in the community to access resources that will support their ability to become true leaders and impact their present and future communities in positive ways,” Tatum said.
Layne and Tatum will begin promoting the program to students in Alamance-Burlington Schools this winter.
The Freedom Scholars program will work in tandem with the successful Elon Academy program to increase college access in Alamance County. Layne and the planning team were cognizant of barriers to access, including the fact that scholars may be working to help support their families — and that participation could lead to financial hardship. To ease that burden, scholars will receive a $400 stipend during their summer residency and another $400 at the program’s completion. Books, supplies, housing and meals are also supplied by the program.
“We want to expand on the excellent work that the Elon Academy has done,” Layne said. “There is such a large number of applicants for Elon Academy that they cannot accept them all. We want to offer the Freedom Scholars program as an option for those who weren’t able to be part of Elon Academy.”
Guilmette is excited by the impact the program will have for scholars as well as Elon’s undergraduates. She mentored youth in a Teagle Foundation program while pursuing undergraduate and advanced degrees. That “transformative” experience encouraged her to pursue teaching as a career.
Shelton believes the program will deepen ties within the community, strengthen undergraduate experiences and prove just as transformative for participating scholars. “The two-week summer program is only the tip of the spear in terms of the scholars’ overall experience,” Shelton said. “This program furthers Elon’s commitment to college access and success and makes its resources available to members of the Alamance County community.”
This article has been edited from the original version appearing on the Elon University website.
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