SPARTANBURG, S.C. - When the college’s first trustees decided to honor the Rev. Benjamin Wofford’s financial legacy by locating Wofford College in the northern part of the county of his birth, the world was a different place — a place without bicycles, typewriters, telephones, toilet paper and lightbulbs. Slavery was legal, and only land-owning white men could vote.

Even hindered by the obstacles and prejudices of the time, Spartanburg and Wofford began to grow and prosper around a shared commitment to community.

“We’ve always been in this together, and over time Wofford and Spartanburg have created a mutually beneficial learning lab of sorts,” says Jessalyn Story, director of the Center for Community-Based Learning (CCBL). “Wofford’s strategic vision is preparing students for meaningful lives as citizens, and place-based learning is an important form of civic learning. You have to understand a place’s history, demographics, resources and challenges before you can effect change.”

The world still faces challenges — equal opportunity, education, poverty, crime, health and wellness — but today Wofford and Spartanburg are working together to make a difference in these and other areas. At the same time, students are using the experience to prepare for lives beyond Wofford.

VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance)
“Every day Wofford students are doing important work in the Spartanburg community that they can talk about in interviews for jobs or graduate school,” says Story. “They’re also joining community efforts to help local families. For example, through VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance), Wofford students helped local low-income families realize an economic impact of more than $1 million during 2018.”
Wofford’s VITA program was founded over a decade ago by Jenny Bem, associate professor of accounting. According to Story, Bem led the program single-handedly for about eight years. In 2016, through the CCBL, Wofford partnered with the SaveFirst initiative of Impact America. Now students and faculty spend time at the Spartanburg County Headquarters Library preparing tax returns for working families, helping them access the Earned Income Tax Credit, which lifts about 6 million Americans, about half of those children, out of poverty every year.”

Students benefit by learning basic tax skills and tax policy implications on social challenges. They deepen their understanding of social systems, develop empathy for people of other backgrounds and build skills in collaborating across difference to achieve positive civic outcomes,” says Story.

First-year Bonner Scholars (pictured above) were trained in SaveFirst basic tax law during their “Learn how to change the world in 28 days” Interim. Also, during the Interim, Bonners examined the role of institutions, ordinary citizens, community organizers and activists as well as their own role in community development. A trip to Washington, D.C., was part of the experience. There, students participated in a seminar on public policy and poverty at the Global Board of Church and Society and met with government officials on both sides of the aisle.

“Change can come in many forms — through direct service, capacity-building, political engagement, activism and funding,” says Story. “Students in that class did a lot of introspection and thinking about their social location, strengths, interests and community.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service
For 12 Wofford students and 14 residents of Archibald Rutledge apartments, a subsidized housing site for disabled adults and older adults in Spartanburg, MLK Day meant “speed dating.”

Students took turns pairing with older adults to talk for about five minutes about different topics relating to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“There was constant chatter, storytelling and smiles throughout the hour,” says Dr. Kara Bopp, associate professor of psychology and director of the college’s Intergenerational Fellows Program.

Other successful events during Wofford’s MLK Day of Service observance included a seminar on non-violent communications, a Hub City Empty Bowls event, a unity march, a poetry slam, an art exhibition, an African dance class and a discussion of desegregation at Wofford. Members of the college community also joined Dr. Helen Dixon, assistant professor of religion, her class and Brenda Lee Pryce, a local African-American historical and community-builder, for an MLK Day clean-up of the Cemetery Street cemetery in Spartanburg.

The first federal holiday marking the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was observed in 1986. In 1994, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, designating the MLK federal holiday as a national day of service.

“This year Wofford really embraced the concept of a “day on, not a day off,” says James Stukes, coordinator of college access and student success. He was on a committee charged by the provost, Dr. Mike Sosulski, with expanding Wofford’s commitment to honoring King’s legacy and building a more diverse and inclusive community. Sosulski attended as many events as he could and said one of the most moving was called Charity and Chai, sponsored by the Muslim Student Association.

“It was brutally cold, and Shahraiz Khan and Mahnoor Haq, had a table set up in front of Main Building sharing chai tea and information about the meaning of charity in the Muslim tradition,” says Sosulski. They also were collecting clothing and cash donations for a local nonprofit organization. “It was really beautiful.”

Stukes has already heard from students, faculty and staff who are thinking ahead for next year.

“Student success is more than just making good grades,” he says. “In order for students to thrive here, they need to find happiness. Wofford’s observance of MLK Day On gave students another opportunity to get involved and discover where they fit into the Wofford community.”

Nneka Mogbo ’20, an intercultural studies major with minors in business, French and Arabic from Douglasville, Ga., worked with several student organizations to organize events.

“The collaborative aspect allowed students to actively embody the ‘beloved community,’” says Mogbo. “We used this opportunity to share experiences, discuss difficult topics and actively take steps to develop our community.”

Mogbo is currently studying abroad in Tunisia and Italy, where she looks forward to learning more about the “different dynamics that need to be balanced to welcome diversity and inclusion. The beloved community cannot stand without the inclusion of all people,” she says.

Community Engaged Faculty Fellows project
The Community Engaged Faculty Fellows program started during the 2017-18 academic year. Since then, with support from the CCBL and faculty liaison Dr. Laura Barbas Rhoden, 19 faculty members spanning 12 disciplines have developed and taught mutually beneficial academic civic engagement courses, collaborating with more than 25 community partner organizations and engaging more than 300 students. For example, during the fall semester, as part of the Milliken Sustainability Initiative, Dr. Alysa Handelsman’s Anthropology 305 class spent time getting to know Northside community partners — the demographics, the area, key people and organizations, the opportunities and challenges. This semester, the same students are continuing in ANTH 306 with Handelsman, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology, and Story to develop and implement projects that enhance student academic learning and civic skills while addressing critical social issues in the Northside and contributing to the public good.

“We’re now in conversations seeking to help students connect these types of learning experiences in defined civil learning pathways across majors, minors and the co-curriculum,” says Story.

iCAN near-peer mentoring
Holding keys, 11 10th-grade students from Spartanburg County walked around a room in which a similar number of Wofford students held locks. Each time a key fit a lock, a near-peer mentoring relationship began, opening new opportunities and pathways toward college preparation, enrollment and success.

The Wofford students are part of iCAN Spartanburg College Access Network (iCAN), a program that recruits, trains, matches and supports their service as near-peer mentors, friends and coaches for Spartanburg County high school students in The Spartanburg County Foundation’s Citizens Scholars Institute. Many of the Wofford participants are Pell-eligible or the first in their families to go to college, which makes them ideal to mentor high school students with similar backgrounds.

“The Citizen Scholars and Wofford students talk about goals — personal, educational and professional — and how to reach them. They explore their strengths and interests and think about academic majors that fit those. They work together to find service opportunities, summer employment and scholarships,” says Stukes. “The iCAN mentors and mentees form real relationships, and because of that, both benefit.”