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Bonner

Learning to serve and serving to learn

Wofford celebrates 25 years of transformative generosity and service learning with Bonner Scholars Program.

Last fall Breanne Lillie ’17 wrote an editorial for the Old Gold and Black student newspaper called “Don’t be afraid to cross the street” in an attempt to convey her Bonner experience to peers. She uses the words of fellow Bonner Scholar Curt McPhail ’96, the Northside Initiative project manager, who was advised in the 1990s to avoid leaving “the Wofford bubble.”

Thanks to Wofford’s Bonner Scholars, things have changed.

Lillie serves as the logistics coordinator for the Northside Development Group and has seen first-hand that the revitalization of a low-income, high-crime area involves the entirety of Spartanburg—including Wofford College. In fact, Lillie says, Wofford is one of the “major players” in this revitalization project.

This kind of shift in Wofford’s culture—from isolation to engagement—is what led McPhail to set down roots in Spartanburg.

“I owe most of my career to my experiences as a Bonner,” says McPhail. “Bonner taught me to seek justice and question things. It also showed that there is always a backstory, and as much as we want things to be clear, there really is often a complex set of circumstances leading to the situation. In all things, authenticity and love cut through the clutter.”

After four years of service, Bonner Scholar Jonathan Franklin ’16 also believes in the power of Bonner and the power of community.

“Bonner has given me so many opportunities both inside and outside the classroom to sharpen my leadership skills and to explore opportunities for life after Wofford,” he says. Franklin has his sights set on a journalism career and will graduate in May with two majors, a concentration and more than 1,700 hours of service. “My first year as a Bonner, I was a mentor to a high school senior applying to college, but since then I’ve served with the Urban League of the Upstate located near downtown Spartanburg. I fell in love with the people and service that I was doing and made it my permanent site for my Bonner career.”

A 25-Year Tradition

“Twenty-five members of the Class of 1995 have been designated the first Wofford College Bonner Scholars. They will be participating in a unique new program that combines ‘learning to serve and serving to learn.’”

The quote was published 25 years ago in the fall 1991 edition of Wofford Today to introduce the Bonner program. In those first years most of the service concentrated on tutoring. Today, Wofford is one of about 75 colleges and universities with a Bonner presence, and 60 Wofford Bonner Scholars serve at dozens of sites all around Spartanburg. 

The Corella & Bertram F. Bonner Foundation of Princeton, N.J.

According to Jessalyn Wynn Story, director of the Bonner Scholars Program and service learning at Wofford, the Bonner Scholarship Program is the signature offering of the Corella A. and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation in Princeton, N.J. Both Corella and Bertram Bonner were born into poverty, says Story, and wanted to do something with their wealth that would help others. They hired Wayne Meisel, their minister’s son, as their foundation’s first president.

With the Bonners, Meisel developed the idea for a program that would help students with significant financial need access higher education by engaging in service to earn their scholarships. He led the foundation and the Bonner Scholars Program for more than two decades.

The first Bonner Scholars Program was established in 1990 at Berea College in Kentucky, near where Corella Bonner was born. Wofford and about a dozen other Appalachian-area schools joined the following year. Wofford has graduated more than 350 Bonner Scholars since 1991.

Story has been program director for eight years, and though she was not a Bonner, she remembers recognizing her college classmates in a composite picture of Davidson College’s first cohort of Bonner Scholars at the foundation’s headquarters.

“I was looking at the individuals and thinking, ‘These are the best people in my class. They’re the most socially conscious, the most mature and the most impactful among us.’ I don’t know if Bonner finds those people and makes them Bonners or develops them into those kind of people, but I like to think it’s a little of both.”

How It Works at Wofford

Wofford Bonner Scholars receive scholarships that cover their full need, as well as providing additional funds for training, enrichment, travel and living, and earning stipends for their summers of service. At Wofford about half of the Bonner Scholars are underrepresented minority students; and nearly a third are first-generation college students. Both Wofford and the Bonner Foundation contribute to the scholarships.

“We look for students who already have a service background, but we take a broad view,” says Story. “They might not call it service, but maybe they’ve spent a lot of time helping an elderly neighbor or interpreting for a family member who doesn’t speak English. We look for mature students with an awareness of people outside themselves—students who see other people as important and do all they can to improve the quality of others’ lives.”

Throughout the academic year Bonners give 10 hours per week to the program, including about two hours of training and enrichment with other Bonners. The other eight hours are spent in service or capacity building with one of Wofford’s nonprofit or governmental community partners. Scholars also are required to complete 280 hours of service, anywhere in the world, over each of at least two of their summers as Bonner Scholars.

Reciprocal Impact

According to Story, the program is a win/win/win—a win for the students, a win for the communities and their organizations, and a win for the colleges and universities that host the programs.

“Not all of that impact is quantifiable,” she says, “but the data on student impact and impact on the communities in which Bonner Scholars eventually settle is clear.” For example, drawing on a seven-year study, Cheryl Keen and Kelly Hall (2009) reported that involvement in the four-year Bonner Scholars program contributes to students’ leadership development, internalization of civic commitments and post-graduate civic involvement. Analysis of more than 3,000 Bonner alumni nationwide suggests they show markedly higher “civic professionalism,” have made career choices shaped by their involvement and remain civically active after college.

“Impact can be reciprocal,” says Bonner Scholars Program Coordinator Dr. Ramon Galinanes. “One way to look at impact is number of people served, or efficiency. Sometimes it’s not easy to quantify, like students who work at an afterschool program in Arcadia. They may increase literacy over time, which can be tracked. But they also are inspiring students in their education, and that’s hard to quantify. They might show up to help and defy every expectation of what they think a Wofford student is like—diversity has an impact, too.”

Life After Wofford as A Bonner

Jordan Hardy ’12, a master of social work candidate at the University of South Carolina and the former veteran services coordinator for the One Less Homeless Vet program with Family Services Inc., says that the Bonner Scholars program shaped her life so much that she can’t imagine doing anything besides serving others.

“The Bonner Scholars Program is hard to describe because each experience is different for each person. It challenges you like never before, but also encourages a kind of growth that is unique to Bonners,” she says. “It is a different kind of learning that pushes you out of the ‘Wofford bubble’ to really see and experience diversity through more than just a class exercise or a research paper.”

During her years as a Wofford Bonner, Hardy served primarily with the Spartanburg Youth Council (SYC).

“I did a little bit of everything because the director of the SYC was pretty much the only person on staff. I loved it and learned skills that prepared me for a successful academic and professional life.”

Kierra Sims ’11 works at a social justice institution called Highlander Research and Education Center. Before her Wofford Bonner service, Sims wanted to attend law school and work in family court.

“I quickly realized I didn’t want to work to uphold laws but instead, think about and strategize about why laws were in place and make changes to improve the lives of people facing court every day,” explains Sims. “My Bonner service was working year-round on pro bono cases at a family court law firm in Spartanburg. I also spent some time working in the Glendale community (before Wofford had roots in Glendale), helping organize neighborhood meetings, doing door-to-door outreach and reaching out to area youth. One summer I served with the American Civil Liberties Union in Charleston, S.C., doing mail intake. There was a lot of correspondence with people in prison.”

This strong theme of social justice was not just theoretical for Sims.

“Bonner was more than a scholarship. It wasn’t just about checking off my hours. It was a way to address immediate needs of my family and community. I was able to understand the way I grew up and that the realities my community still faces are embedded in a system that is upheld across our country,” she says. “Bonner gave me concrete ways to address those realities while creating long-term strategies.”

The Rev. Lyn Pace ’99 participated in the Bonner Scholars program both as a student and as its director (2003-2009).

“The Wofford Bonner community has been so formative for me, in part because I stuck with it for so long,” says Pace. “I got to see many students pass through the program over a decade, and that will always hold a special place in my heart. I still keep up with some of my Bonner students from my days as director.… I’ve even performed weddings for a few of them!”

Pace, along with Jon Williams ’00, started and then directed the Smart Center through the Boys and Girls Club at Arcadia in 1998. They planned daily activities, recruited volunteers, managed problems, planned celebrations and kept in close contact with the school as well as the main site for the Boys and Girls Club in Spartanburg. A religion and history major, Pace says that Bonner impacted his academic pursuits and vice versa. The combination had a profound influence on his career path.

“Bonner taught me that living out my values was of primary importance to me, especially as I related my experience to my faith,” he says. “It also taught me the importance of engaging and shaping community—both the student community and the larger community as well. It taught me how important it is to get college students engaged in the surrounding community—not just for service hours but so that they can get to know their neighbors. I’m still doing that work today as the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University.”

Perry Henson ’96, an English and sociology major, is currently the director of counseling and accessibility services at Wofford.

“My Bonner experience reaffirmed my goal to enter a helping profession. It taught me that working in intimate relationship with others is how I can best effect change, and that being with others during difficult and profound moments is a privilege that I wanted to earn,” says Henson, who served at SAFE Homes/Rape Crisis Coalition, Cleveland Elementary School, Second Presbyterian Soup Kitchen and WestGate Family Therapy Clinic. During the summers she served at Spartanburg County Department of Social Services, Salkehatchie Summer Service and Charleston County Day Camp. “I engaged in school counseling, social work, rape crisis counseling and family counseling. As a result I went on to earn an educational specialist degree in marriage and family therapy at Converse College, becoming the first admitted to the program without a master’s degree because of my vast experience as a Bonner.”

Looking Forward

In the past year Wofford Bonner Scholars have been focusing on a new High Impact Community Engagement Practices (HICEPS) initiative that heightens student learning while focusing on community engagement. The intent is to create a more civic-minded campus for all students, faculty and staff, with Bonner at its core.

“The Center for Global and Community Engagement is working to help Wofford fulfill its vision of ‘preparing students for meaningful lives as citizens, leaders and scholars,’ whether they are Bonners or not,” says Story. “That means cultivating the institution’s civic ethos and spirit of public-mindedness, nurturing each student’s capacity and commitment to think critically about issues that have public consequences, and working collaboratively in a pluralistic society to improve the quality of people’s lives and the sustainability of the planet.”

Dr. Ron Robinson ’78, Perkins-Prothro Chaplain and Professor of Religion, believes that the Bonner program has had a deep impact on campus culture and will continue to help shape the Wofford experience.

“When Wofford received the endowment to fund the Bonner program long term, I said that having the program here would help us keep our soul,” says Robinson. “Service to others is an important part of Wofford’s mission. Bonner embeds that into the fabric of day-to-day life on this campus.”

by Sarah Madden '17