Sewanee’s flourishing civic engagement program reaches beyond the Domain to prove that a crucial part of preparing students for success is giving them opportunities to interact meaningfully with the communities and people around them.
By Tom Sanders
Like many good Southerners, Kelsey Arbuckle, C’19, is a talented storyteller, often adopting a self-deprecating tone. Take the time she got in trouble at Camp Discover, an after-school enrichment program that helps build resilience in at-risk children by helping them learn how to tell their own stories through words and photography. It was Columbus Day, and Arbuckle showed up for time with the children. “They love me,” she says. “They think I’m funny. So I said, ‘Do you know why we celebrate Columbus Day?’ They didn’t, so I said, ‘Well, gather round, kids! (Two beats ... ) We stole all this land from the people who lived here, and Columbus was the first one to do it!’” (Two more beats … )
“They told me I couldn’t say that to the children anymore.”
Arbuckle told me that story at the Baltimore airport, where we shared a layover on a much-delayed flight back to Tennessee from Hartford. I had gone to New Haven, Connecticut, to see the final poster sessions for the Sewanee at Yale summer program. Each year, Linda Mayes, C’73, and her colleagues at Yale host between 10 and 20 Sewanee students who work in laboratories, go on rounds with doctors, hear lectures on topics like medical ethics, and see how a world-class medical school operates. While most of the students are in psychology or pre-health, this year Arbuckle, a politics major, joined them as a Canale Civic Engagement Intern, working for the National Diaper Bank Network.
The Canale Civic Engagement Interns are student leaders who work either during the academic year or in the summer (in Sewanee or elsewhere) in a sustained field experience in community engagement. The internships are funded by John Canale, C’67, and Arbuckle has enjoyed both the Sewanee and the study-away experience. Canale himself is convinced that community service can be an important component in a liberal arts education. “Students will have to live in a world where they need to be tuned in to a variety of people’s day-to-day experiences,” he says. “The ultimate goal is that they are ready to contribute and be good citizens, and I am impressed that Sewanee’s civic engagement programs are doing just that. My father told me something when I was at Sewanee: ‘You won’t remember the content of everything you hear from your professors, but you can learn to solve problems, and that will stay with you.’”
The internships are one part of an ambitious, multifaceted program, the Office of Civic Engagement (OCE), that is making major enhancements in curriculum and student leadership training and experiences. A $1.12 million challenge gift from a family that wishes to remain anonymous is helping Sewanee accelerate development of its model program. The University’s goal is raising an endowment to sustain the activities now being funded by the challenge gift.
Program components include a curriculum that applies academic learning in a community setting, a philanthropy laboratory that creates a partnership between students and a community-based philanthropy (the South Cumberland Community Fund), and a residential life component, centered on the Community Engagement House (or “the CoHo” as its residents call it). The program’s student leadership corps is made up of “Canales” and Bonner Leaders (“Bonners”). Bonners are students recruited to participate in the Bonner Foundation’s national service leadership program. Arbuckle is and has been part of all those opportunities, adopting civic engagement early and often.
When I saw Arbuckle at the Yale poster session, she introduced me to Susan Van Ness (chief of programs at the network) and Mary Madoule (program coordinator) as the “Paige and Nicky” of the National Diaper Bank Network.
In Arbuckle’s world, Paige and Nicky are Paige Schneider, professor of politics at Sewanee, and Nicky Hamilton, C’99, senior associate director of OCE. Schneider has been part of Arbuckle’s life since that moment she broke down and cried in her professor’s office. “I was sure I was going to college to play basketball,” says Arbuckle, “but when I was a senior in high school, I hurt my foot. After that, all the colleges that had recruited me were ambivalent about honoring their commitments except Sewanee. They said, ‘We definitely still want you,’ so I decided that Sewanee was where I wanted to go.”
At Sewanee, however, the plans did not quite gel. Arbuckle ended up quitting basketball. She was socially and academically uncomfortable, not the least because of Schneider’s class, “Politics of Poverty,” a class with a community-engagement component. “Now that I’m old,” says the 20-year-old Arbuckle, “I wouldn’t recommend that a student from Grundy County take that class first thing. It’s like we were putting my own community under the microscope. We were basically studying my life.”
When Arbuckle was reduced to tears during office hours, Schneider got on the phone with Emily Partin, the director of Discover Together, a child and family development program in Tracy City, and Arbuckle started to work for the project at the same time she was doing work-study in the OCE reporting to Nicky Hamilton. “Nicky is intense,” Arbuckle says. “And she has her life so together.”
Hamilton may need to be intense. She manages the largest and most successful AmeriCorps VISTA member corps in the state of Tennessee. She also works, as part of her position at Sewanee, as a part-time employee of the South Cumberland Community Fund (SCCF), developing capacity-building projects for this nascent community foundation serving the Cumberland Plateau. The VISTA corps helps energize the community connections that ensure students have good experiences in the community.
Nationally, the VISTA program has a single-minded focus on capacity building: VISTA members work full-time in schools and nonprofits or government entities on projects that help the partner organizations increase their capacity to carry out their mission. Hamilton’s superb management of the program as well as the innovative partnership between a university, a community fund, and local nonprofits has garnered praise from Robin Corindo, the Tennessee state program director. “When this program was first dreamed of, I did not have any idea how great the need was and how quickly the program would expand,” she writes. “The model of combining the resources of Sewanee, partnering with the South Cumberland Community Fund, local nonprofits, and [Hamilton’s] ability to mentor and lead AmeriCorps VISTA members has made it clear that this program is truly engaging the right people to lead change.” The numbers back up that assessment. Sewanee reported to the Corporation for National Community Service that the VISTA program leveraged $334,000 in cash or in-kind resources and provided 186 organizations with capacity-building services.
From Paige Schneider’s perspective, civic engagement at Sewanee has come a long way, from a duPont Fund-supported program to create a catalog of courses with a Community Engagement designation to today’s fully articulated, multi-pronged academic and co-curricular program. “Sewanee is distinguishing itself in a genuine way because it is building such powerful partnerships in the community,” she says. “One of the great things about our program is that we can let students know that they do not have to wait until they are out of college to be part of making positive change in the world. Our students understand that they are at an elite college and that they have a unique opportunity and responsibility to be a voice for those who do not have as much social power.”
The daughter of Venezuelan immigrants, and a first-generation college student, Eliana Perozo, C’18, has had the opportunity to speak for the powerless on the largest of stages. As a child, Perozo endured several years of homelessness, and as a member of a national board on homeless youth, she was able to meet with then-Acting Deputy Secretary of Education John B. King in 2014 to advise him on obstacles to education for homeless youth. That conversation resulted in changes in the way the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is administered to make it easier on students who do not have a permanent address. For that work, for being a co-founding member of Sewanee’s first “Writing House,” for her leadership of the Community Engagement House, and for work as a Canale intern, Perozo was recently named by Campus Compact, a national association of universities that foster civic engagement, as a Newman Civic Fellow, one of a handful nationwide.
Like Kelsey Arbuckle, Eliana Perozo had a big adjustment to college life when she came to Sewanee. “Sewanee was unlike any other place I had ever been,” she says. A resident of Mobile, Alabama, Perozo had been homeless and had moved away from her family at 16. “I was really resistant to the culture here,” she says. “I was uncomfortable with the social scene—as a woman of color and as a person who had experienced homelessness now daily being around people who came from much different circumstances—and I seriously considered leaving. But I decided not to because I wanted to ‘make it,’ and I thought that making it here was what ‘making it’ looked like.”
By the time she was a sophomore, Perozo was settling in—participating in poetry night at the Blue Chair Tavern, working part-time at Shenanigans, publishing in the Mountain Goat student literary journal, of which she would soon become the first woman of color to be the editor-in-chief. As a Canale intern, Perozo worked at North Elementary School in Altamont. As a student, she worked toward a double major in international and global studies and creative writing. With other students, she co-founded the Writing House, a theme house for students interested in creative writing. “We really tried hard to create programming that would serve as an alternative to a social scene dominated by Greek life. We had a Valentine’s Day letter-writing event where people wrote a letter to a lover or a foe; we had open mics and even writing exercises to help people hone their skills.”
After the presidential election in 2016, Perozo particularly made her presence known by drawing attention to marginalized voices. “I decided that I wanted to have a writer come to campus and have an event that would let people know their voices were heard. I wanted the writer to be a woman, and I wanted her to be a woman of color.” Perozo reached out to Tiana Clark, who grew up in Nashville and attended Tennessee State University. “Tiana Clark is the most-read new poet of this year,” says Perozo. “We weren’t the first to get her to speak, but we got her here. It was important for a lot of students to have someone on campus who looked like them and who spoke for them.”
As a junior, Perozo moved from the Writing House to the Community Engagement House. The CoHo is a center of activity for students who have a passion for community engagement, either as Bonner Leaders, Canales, or participants in community-engagement classes. It is the residential-life leg of the civic engagement initiative at Sewanee, and it can build powerful learning experiences. Working with co-director Armonte Butler, C’17, who was the only other person of color at the CoHo at the time, Perozo began developing programming that focused on social justice, but found out that some conversations became difficult for people. “We had a house meeting where several people had said they were tired of the social justice programming, that you could have community engagement without social justice. I wondered how I would address that.”
How Sewanee builds a community that conforms with the University’s motto has become a question that is more important as the community attempts to become more diverse and more inclusive. For that reason, the OCE is working with Associate Dean Elizabeth Skomp to create a “Dialogue Across Difference” program, yet another component of the office’s work. “Now that I have been at Sewanee, I am in a position of in-betweenness,” Perozo says. “I am comfortable enough in most social situations, but I also feel a responsibility to people who come from marginalized communities to resist assimilation, to honor their experiences.”
Dixon Myers, director of Sewanee’s Outreach Program, became acquainted with Perozo when she participated in an outreach trip to Jamaica two years ago. “That was one of the most outstanding outreach trips I have been on,” Myers says. “Everyone was on a film crew, and it was intense. Students like Eliana did interviews in a community where people basically live at the Kingston Dump.” Myers has been taking students to Jamaica since 1991 and has made long-term relationships with the people in the community there. “It’s only because people know we are coming back, that we are not just there to take advantage of them, that we are able to get into these places.”
Outreach trips began as alternatives to spring breaks, where students do community service instead of heading to the beach. Students get involved with building projects, health care, schools, photography, a payment-for-ecosystem-services project in Haiti, and other kinds of work that introduces them to people in unfamiliar places. In the case of Jamaica, the Sewanee group has found a way to be a voice for those without social power by producing films on marginalized communities. The first film, which won international prizes, was a documentary on Trenchtown. “All of the footage has now been shot for the Kingston dump film,” says Myers. “It’s now in the very time-consuming editing phase.” Outreach has gone to New Orleans since 1992, New York City since 1997, Miami off and on since the late 1990s, and Ecuador and Costa Rica since the early 2000s.
Outreach began as a program of All Saints’ Chapel, and is now an important component of OCE, which serves to integrate and coordinate all of the University’s civic-engagement activities. “Our new office represents where the University is moving with respect to its commitment to being a good neighbor,” says Myers. “It is a comprehensive program, and we are learning how to do better assessment to make sure it is effective.”
James Jurgensen, C’18, is playing a key role in building the effectiveness of the OCE. In Kelsey Arbuckle’s pantheon of the civically engaged, Jurgensen is an “office Bonner.” In his case, that means as a senior intern, he is helping develop curriculum for other Bonners and collecting data that can be used for assessment of the whole program.
Supporting a student leadership corps has been part of Sewanee’s approach to civic engagement since 2006, when the original Canale internships were established. Canales were meant to originate programming and recruit other students as volunteers. Several years later, Sewanee began a relationship with the Bonner Foundation to create a program that added 40 Bonner Leaders to the 10 Canales. Unlike Canales, Bonners have no designated funding (the foundation no longer makes grants), but they are eligible for institutional work-study. The OCE challenge gift includes funding to supplement students’ financial aid awards. What Bonner does provide, however, is a four-year curriculum that orients students to leadership skills.
For the past several years, Robin Hille Michaels, associate director of the OCE, has been working directly with the Canale interns and Bonner Leaders. “I know I shouldn’t say this, but I think I work with the best students at Sewanee,” says Michaels. “They have a sense of responsibility and they are passionate about making positive change. They are smart and want to grapple with tough questions. And they want relationships in the large sense: relationships with the community and with us as mentors.”
Michaels delivers that mentoring as well as a four-year curriculum in leadership and how to work with communities, including conflict resolution and the arts of active citizenship. The interns and leaders meet three times a month: once in a common workshop, once for a reflection on an important issue, and once for a meeting of students working at a particular site.
Jurgensen is convinced that good intentions and empathy are not enough in making positive social change. Ideas and activities need to be tested to see if they are having the intended effect. He is dedicated to research, and he has completed several social research projects as independent studies or as an “office Bonner.” That practical, results-oriented point of view served him well this summer when he completed a Canale Service Internship at Accenture in Washington, D.C. Sewanee had the opportunity to nominate one student for the internship. On the advice of Karen Proctor, who came to Sewanee as a Brown Foundation Fellow and stayed as an advisor to the provost, the OCE chose Jurgensen, who was reportedly the best student in Proctor’s course, “Business 385: Collaborative Change for Social Issues.”
At the mega-consulting firm, Jurgensen distinguished himself again, working on both his research assignments and his “plus one.” At Accenture, employees are allowed to develop their own research projects beyond the ones they are completing for billable hours. The “plus one” system keeps employees engaged in community and engaged in their work, and the company pays employees for the extra time they spend. As an intern, Jurgensen was not eligible for plus-one pay, but he completed multiple projects, including an analysis of how to increase college access for students with learning disabilities. At the end of his internship, he filmed and produced a training video for the company, teaching himself the video editing software as he went along. As should surprise no one, Jurgensen has been offered an analyst job after graduation.
Sam Kern’s journey to Sewanee began when he was selected as a Bonner Leader as a first-year student. His service leadership work takes place at Pelham Elementary School, where he works in the Activ8 program, which encourages healthy eating and exercise among schoolchildren. But after coming to Sewanee, Kern began to think more about the pre-business program, and he applied for and was accepted as a Carey Fellow, the business honors program that is implemented by the Babson Center for Global Commerce.
Like civic engagement, the business program is multifaceted, combining academic work with experiential learning opportunities, and Kern is part of both. Both programs
create pathways for students, developmental tracks that lead to predictable outcomes (meaningful work or meaningful contributions to society). In Kern’s view, both community engagement and business success are equally important parts of a successful life.
Last summer, knowing about Kern’s skills and commitment, Dean of Students Marichal Gentry, C’86, asked Kern to start a Rotaract chapter (the student version of Rotary). Already, he has recruited 35 members to Rotaract.
“I think most of us want to be part of something important and find meaning in our lives, even while we are earning a living,” says Kern. “Rotaract combines service and professionalism, and it is attracting capable and motivated students. It provides a way we can network and push each other toward positive professional and personal development.”
“I want us to get away from the notion that civic engagement is about charity work,” says Jim Peterman, professor of philosophy and director of the OCE. “Civic engagement means understanding society in all its complexity—what makes it work and what could work better and how every individual is embedded in social structures that either empower them or hinder them or sometimes both. We want our students to be aware of everyone’s humanity, not approach their work with others in the community—especially a disadvantaged community—as anything other than as a partnership.”
The OCE challenge grant has greatly accelerated the development of civic engagement, transforming it from a collection of successful associated activities to a coherent program. The piece of the puzzle that led Peterman to civic engagement was the curricular. Peterman was a founding member of a curricular program that over the past decade has encouraged development of community engagement and service-learning. That effort led to development of a catalog of 21 courses with the Community Engagement label. Now, Peterman, Professor of Politics Amy Patterson, and Professor of Biology Alyssa Summers have developed a formal certificate in civic engagement and global leadership with tracks in “development and human capabilities” and “community and global health.” Students earning the certificate take an introductory course and a capstone as well as three linked courses related to the track they are completing. An internship is what makes this learning opportunity a certificate rather than a major or minor.
The OCE may have started as service, but as it develops through philanthropic investments, it is much, much more. It’s a powerful program for student development, where, as Peterman says, “Students deal with things in their own lives in the context of becoming embedded in communities.” Civic engagement is at its heart integrative, looking for partnerships across the curriculum, in every corner and every department. The certificate provides one channel for making those connections, but Peterman is also able to name Civic Engagement Faculty Fellows, recruiting new professors across the curriculum to the civic-engagement world. In the fall, five faculty fellows in three departments (psychology, politics, and Spanish) developed their own curricular innovations.
The Ties that Bind
It’s Oct. 11, 2017, and Nicky Hamilton is intense again. It’s time for the Know Your Worth Conference, a celebration of the achievements of the South Cumberland Community Fund and its community partners. More than 80 local leaders in the nonprofit community have gathered to enjoy a program that combines inspiring stories with discussions of leadership, rural philanthropy, and how to build effective institutions. Hamilton, working alongside Bonnie McCardell, has made important regional connections for this group—representatives of the Appalachian Regional Commission, regional foundations, an inspiring social entrepreneur with a nationally acclaimed story. This chance for local community leaders to make regional and national connections is a critically important outcome of civic engagement. “The conference is an expression of our role as a convener,” says Hamilton. “We like to think of ourselves as leaders, and we are, but our leadership is by creating places where people in the community can get together, learn together, and act together.”
Ten years ago, the area had lots of people doing good work, but today the Cumberland Plateau has a functioning, strategically connected nonprofit sector, much better prepared to address local concerns. “I am really grateful for the partnership between the University and SCCF,” says Jack Murrah, former president of the Lyndhurst Foundation and a stalwart on SCCF’s capacity-building committee. “That partnership has really helped the community fund, but the community fund has also been able to push the University to think of itself as an agent for community development. And the truth is, the University is at risk when it is in a community that is distressed.”
Bonnie and John McCardell have been instrumental in the genesis of both the South Cumberland Community Fund and the Office of Civic Engagement. At the closing lecture for the conference, Peterman introduces the vice-chancellor. “We would not be here tonight without the influence and energy of John McCardell,” he says, noting that McCardell had that capacity of leadership that could say “yes” to great ideas. And, indeed, both McCardells energetically built on the foundation of community engagement they found at Sewanee in 2010. Bonnie organized the community conversations that were critical in the genesis of the community fund and has been a cornerstone of its capacity-building committee since its inception.
While many colleges have been pursuing community partnerships for years, Sewanee’s claims for distinctiveness rest in part on the unparalleled partnership between the College and the local community fund. That partnership provides the engine that gives students extraordinary opportunities to learn in a program that represents an ideal expression of the liberal arts. And it is a structure on which many extraordinary people are now creating a program that will be a persistent feature on the Sewanee landscape for years to come.