"SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Wofford College students and low-income older local adults have new opportunities to connect with and learn from each other through a yearlong initiative funded by a grant from the Council of Independent Colleges in partnership with the AARP Foundation.

Wofford is one of 21 institutions nationwide selected to receive the $12,450 grant, Intergenerational Connections: Students Serving Older Adults; more than 90 institutions applied for the grant.

Eleven Wofford student fellows are participating in the initiative, spearheaded by Dr. Kara Bopp, associate professor and chair of the Department of Psychology, with assistance from Jessalyn Story, director of the Center for Community-Based Learning.

“Low-income older adults in Spartanburg are in need of our attention,” says Bopp, who teaches cognitive and developmental psychology. “Older adults are too often ignored. … Our goal is to improve their well-being through interactions with our students, but in addition, I think we will find that our students benefit deeply from this opportunity and ultimately care about civic issues related to aging.”

Through the grant, student fellows lead weekly workshops in various community centers and assisted-living facilities in the Spartanburg area. The workshops focus on social engagement through writing prompts and creative activities. Fellow Omar Elmore, a junior English major from Greenwood, S.C., leads a group at the Archibald Rutledge Apartments that recently reflected on strengths and weaknesses. Lively discussions followed as the college students and older adults bonded over the many characteristics they shared. For an hour, age and circumstance fell away. “For the college, this is an important step toward greater civic engagement,” says student fellow Tim Lindsey, a senior sociology major from Spartanburg. “Even though Wofford is an open campus, we can always improve on reaching out and establishing new relationships and presences.”

According to CIC, the project has four goals:
• Identify and serve the needs of older adults in college and university communities, particularly in the areas of hunger, housing, income generation and social isolation.
• Help college students develop new skills and knowledge.
• Increase student retention at independent colleges and universities through service learning.
• Develop a national network of student programs that recognize the mutual benefit of intergenerational connections.

Ashley Stewart, a sophomore biology major from State College, Pa., believes building these new relationships in the greater community has helped her grow. “Being able to connect and share with people you wouldn’t normally interact with is incredibly meaningful,” she says. “These older adults can offer us wisdom, and we hope we can give them something to look forward to during the week.”

Lindsey agrees. “Even though we all have older adults in our lives, many of us don’t have meaningful conversations with them. When you listen to their stories, and actually hear them, the things you learn are surprising.”

At the end of the grant period, the Wofford student fellows each will have conducted 10 workshops in the fall and 10 in the spring, amounting to approximately 200 workshops over the year that will impact more than 200 older adults and include the interaction of 100 or more Wofford students attending workshops for service learning requirements or other volunteer efforts. Bopp and the student fellows will compile a collection of the work produced by workshop participants in a public display planned for May 2018.

“We are finding that our residents are connecting with a youthful perspective that brings delight,” says Terril Bates, CEO of the Spartanburg Housing Authority. “Our staff is significantly impacted as the attention that the residents receive from the students assuage their anxiety and their fears and provide a very caring engagement for them. Many of these residents do not have good familial or social structures through which to experience these interactions. We have never been able to deliver this kind of experience because of the limited staffing levels. Our hope is that the students will gain insight and information that will positively impact their life journeys, as citizens and professionals.”

Julianna Rima, the project’s lead student fellow, says, “The whole point of the project is to give visibility and importance to a community that often does not receive those things. They are an important part of our community, and we want them to feel that.” Rima is a Spanish and psychology major from New York, N.Y.

In addition to Elmore, Lindsey, Rima and Stewart, other Wofford intergenerational fellows are senior Ni’Asia Daniels, junior Chandler Graham (spring only), junior Mayson Liner, junior Sheridan Kate Murray (fall only), senior Carly Powers, senior Arnesha Rector and sophomore Emilie Tinker. The fellows have encouraged other Wofford students to become involved by attending workshops, and several Wofford professors – Dr. Christine Dinkins (philosophy), Dr. Kimberly Hall (English), Dr. Kim Rostan (English) and Jessica Scott-Felder (studio art) – have made this project part of their courses this semester.

For more information about the Intergenerational Connections grant, Wofford’s intergenerational student fellows, including their specific sites, and how to sign up to join a workshop, visit sites.wofford.edu/boppkl/home/cic-aarp-grant/.

By Kelsey Aylor, Wofford Class of 2018"