August 29, 2011
Before they even hit the books, all incoming Rollins students participate in SPARC (Service, Philanthropy, Activism, Rollins College) — a day of service, education, and action at dozens of locations throughout the Central Florida community. (Photo by Jessica Cole)
Keri Hefferin understands the importance of volunteer outreach. As community and mentor coordinator for Fern Creek Elementary School in Orlando, she works to create relationships that can help break the cycle of poverty that currently affects many of the school’s students. With more than 83 percent of Fern Creek’s students on free or reduced lunch and a 23 percent homeless rate, these mentorships are a “must-have” for the school.
Hefferin runs one of the largest mentorship programs (125 strong) in Orange County Public Schools — and is constantly seeking support from individuals and organizations willing to work hard to create positive and long-lasting change in the lives of underserved children. In the case of the Rollins College Office of Community Engagement (OCE), she has an enthusiastic participant that encourages its students and employees to give back to the community on a regular basis in order to connect with a greater purpose and cause.
“Rollins students aren’t just about putting in hours,” said Hefferin. “They’re in it for the long haul and take social responsibility seriously. The impact of our collaborative effort goes beyond donations and mentors. It’s an inseparable partnership, teaching everyone that community service is a lifelong commitment.”
From on-campus college visits to helping develop a new science lab to teaching robotics to painting classrooms, student and faculty volunteers are intrinsically involved in all aspects of Fern Creek life. In fact, you’ll find at least one person from Rollins on-site every day. It’s one of the reasons why the elementary school credits the College with helping elevate its rating from a “C” to an “A” over the course of the nine-year partnership. “All of our Rollins volunteers have truly become part of the Fern Creek family,” said Hefferin. “We are striving together to achieve a common goal — to help these elementary students become successful.”
The Fern Creek relationship is one of hundreds across the region that Rollins students, administrators and faculty have worked hard to establish and grow. A strong emphasis on service-learning as part of the College’s overall curriculum has helped expose students to the importance of community outreach. This philosophy has helped graduate students who are reflective, compassionate and ready to engage with the world as advocates committed to progress and justice.
In recognition of Rollins achievements in community engagement, Saturday, August 20, was named "Rollins College Community Service Day" in both the cities of Winter Park and Orlando. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer (in tan suit) presents Rollins President Duncan with the Proclamation during a City Commission meeting. Administrators and staff from Rollins and the Crummer Graduate School of Business attended the celebration.
When the OCE was established a decade ago, the goal was to make a concerted effort to institutionalize community engagement as a central part of the Rollins experience. While already known for its volunteer and outreach efforts, the College wanted to take this commitment a step further, creating a central place on campus where students could go to raise civic awareness and where faculty could link community needs with curriculum and research.
“We see the community as a co-educator, or partner in education, where students can learn about environmental and social issues,” said Micki Meyer, director of community engagement. “We don’t just send students to volunteer; we believe that developing relationships to teach and engage is the best way to empower them to pursue meaningful lives and productive careers.”
This real-world exposure begins right away for the entire Rollins family. New students are introduced to the school’s institutional commitment to service the first day they walk on campus. Over the course of the last decade, every academic department has offered at least one community-based learning course or experience for Rollins students. According to the latest National Survey of Student Engagement, 89 percent of responding seniors indicated that they had participated in community service and volunteer efforts while at Rollins. It is expected that this number will continue to increase as service becomes a defining part of the Rollins experience.
“Rollins is reputable both academically and from a social justice standpoint and that’s why I chose to come here,” said Zachary Baldwin, a sophomore majoring in art history. “The OCE empowers students to find their passion and make a difference not just by serving, but by creating progress. It’s about getting to the heart of problems, not just volunteering for a day.”
Baldwin, who plans to become an art history professor, wants to take course curriculum and apply it to the outside world. Inspired by Rollins professors, his objective is to match his career goals with social responsibility. “How can I engage the community as an art professor?” he asked. “I see my teachers doing it now and this inspires me to tap into my creativity, take what I’ve learned from them and eventually convey the importance of issue-based learning to my own future students.”
One of the goals of the OCE is to inspire others to make service a permanent part of their lives. In fact, Meyer still works with a number of alumni who have taken what they learned at Rollins and committed themselves to doing life-changing work for both nonprofits and society in general. “When they reconnect with our office after graduation looking for ways to continue their involvement with the community, I know that they have embraced the idea of a service-based life,” said Meyer.
When Rollins students began working on class projects with seniors from The Mayflower Retirement Community in Winter Park, Jana Ricci was impressed with their level of engagement. Ricci, director of marketing for The Mayflower, knew immediately that the partnership would be successful. “Rollins professors are always interested in matching our residents’ needs with student projects,” she said. “When this happens, a bond inevitably develops between two generations and lifelong friendships are formed.”
In the sophomore honors seminar, Memory and the Photograph, students investigated memory from both psychological and artistic perspectives and were able to put their research into practice while working with The Mayflower residents. “It was an opportunity for students to have access to an intergenerational view of how photographs have changed over the years and a clever way for residents to express themselves through photographs and the memories associated with them,” said Ricci.
Assisting more than 250 diverse nonprofit organizations in Central Florida and around the world, the OCE has successfully incorporated community leadership into the development of courses, programs and opportunities within the College. It has also proven that community partners are essential co-educators in the lives of students. One such partner is the Farmworker Association of Florida, which helps empower farmworkers to cope with the social, political, economic and workplace issues that affect their lives.
“Rollins volunteers always bring something extra to the table,” said Jeannie Economos, the association’s pesticide health and safety project coordinator. “They are encouraged to broaden their horizons, expand their thinking and ask questions about why there are inequities and injustices in communities just a few miles from their campus and this makes them engaged participants.”
That’s music to Meyer’s ears. “We know we’ve done our jobs as educators if we can expose our students to meaningful work so that they can create positive change as new leaders of the 21st century,” she said. “In the end, our goal is to shift the culture and perception of civic responsibility and connect people’s deepest passions with the world’s greatest needs. Hopefully, we will continue to succeed in that endeavor.”