A Bridge to Everywhere
October 26, 2021
By Robert Stephens
From the moment our wide-eyed students step onto the Rollins campus, they’re met by countless opportunities to put their learning into practice. The result? Confident, well-prepared citizens of the world ready to lead the future.
In summer 2009, Lucas Hernandez ’13 sent an email request from his home in upstate New York to his future home at Rollins. He hadn’t yet begun his first year. While his friends enjoyed one last summer together, Hernandez wanted to use the weeks between high school and college as a bridge into a world beyond home—both homes. It’s why he wanted to go to Rollins in the first place.
“I’d been taught at an early age to appreciate different cultures,” says Hernandez, “so I sent the email to see about going on a field study. A few weeks later I was in Costa Rica. My first classes at Rollins hadn’t even started, but the trip set the tone for my college career.”
In Costa Rica, Hernandez met people in national parks and in villages. He noticed that they all used critical thinking to connect three important dots: from preservation efforts to tourism to their own livelihoods.
“We talk a lot about ‘best practices’ in business,” says Hernandez, who is now director of U.S. corporate partnerships for Microsoft in Miami. “But the people in Costa Rica showed me that best practices can be learned in everyday life, wherever you are.”
Over the next four years, Hernandez would go on to facilitate 11 service learning Immersion trips to places like Nepal, Chile, Ecuador, and the Grand Canyon. He’d collaborate with Rollins’ administrators and donors to bake experiential learning components into the curriculum so that more students could intern, serve, and engage in the communities in our backyard and around the globe. No matter their means or status, all Rollins students should have the opportunity to learn from the world so they’re equipped to lead positive change in it.
“Every major corporation is now talking about stewardship,” says Hernandez. “My experiences outside the classroom at Rollins, starting with Costa Rica, put me ahead of the curve.”
Hamilton Holt planted the seeds for real-world learning nearly a century ago. Educators around the country thought of Holt, a former newspaper editor, as an outsider when he became president of Rollins in 1925. They scoffed at his belief that college should emphasize life application as much as traditional classroom work.
“His approach was controversial,” says Micki Meyer, Rollins’ assistant vice president for student affairs – community. “Back then everyone structured education around knowledge acquisition. Hamilton Holt thought learning should be active. He was ahead of his time. How do we know? Look what our graduates are doing around the world.”
They arrive at Rollins as first-generation college students or third-generation Tars. They leave for careers in New York, Los Angeles, and London, but also in farmland, huts, and on mountains. Pierce Neinken ’06 ‘08MBA studied around the world before landing in San Francisco as the global portfolio manager for Airbnb.
“One of the core values in our business is ‘embrace the adventure,’” says Neinken. “If you do that, you’ll go about life with optimism and joy. For me, and with a lot of help, the adventure began at Rollins.”
Lucca Gonçalves ’21 is excited to get his Tuesday morning started. He graduated from Rollins a few weeks ago with a degree in economics. Before he could even say goodbye to the campus, he had a job as a business analyst with KPMG, one of the Big Four accounting organizations. Gonçalves is confident. He’s happy. He can hardly believe where his winding path has led.
“I didn’t think Rollins would be accessible,” says Gonçalves, who was born and raised in Brazil before moving to the U.S. with his family. After attending Valencia College for two years, he applied for, and received, a scholarship to attend Rollins. The scholarship happens to be named for the College’s forward-thinking president (Hamilton Holt) and is funded by the generous family of Daniel Riva ’81H.
“Everything that’s happened is like … destiny,” says Gonçalves.
You can trace Gonçalves’ destiny back to his first semester at Rollins when he privately wondered why he, an economics major, had taken a class on health and well-being. In that class, communication professor Anne Stone told students how to use Rollins Handshake, the College’s version of LinkedIn. The program matched Gonçalves with an internship in the business development division at Orange County’s government offices.
“The internship became a key differentiator when I interviewed for the position I have now,” he says. “It’s the reason I could sit up and lead the conversation, even though I’m naturally reserved. Being in that health class sped up my career process.”
In an American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) survey, 90 percent of employers say they’re more likely to hire a candidate who’s had an internship or apprenticeship. The question is: How actively involved is each school in pairing students with the right internships?
Stories like Gonçalves’ take unpredictable turns, but they’re not accidental at Rollins. Rollins’ Center for Career & Life Planning facilitates everything from academic internships to interview prep, helping students connect their major to future goals, identify transferable skills, develop networking strategies, and establish connections with alumni and potential employers.
Campbell Brown ’90 believes hardships should never prevent a Rollins student from learning in real-world situations. So much so that he pledged $2 million to endow Rollins’ paid internship program known as Gateway Fellows. Brown, chair of the board for Brown-Forman, the parent company of seven major alcohol brands in Louisville, Kentucky, thinks often about his own experiential learning at Rollins. Somewhere, he even has a 32-year-old diary.
“I took it to China when I studied there as a student,” says Brown. “Mostly, I wrote about our mutual appreciation for each other despite our very different cultures. Then before my junior year, I had an internship working for a senator in D.C. Policymakers would have lunch together and discuss issues despite their disagreements. To this day I enjoy bringing a room together to work through various opinions. That’s how you make things better.”
Brown’s roommate at Rollins quietly made an imprint too.
“He had to hold down a job just to make a Rollins education possible. At the same time, he had to keep a certain GPA to maintain his scholarship,” says Brown. “He would’ve thrived from a paid internship. But a lot of students like him might need help with expenses, and maybe they don’t want to ask for help. If my financial support can open doors for students like that, then it’s a win for everyone.”
William Glass ’14 has an office in New York and as many connections around the globe as LaGuardia Airport. His heart, though, is still with his mother near Birmingham, Alabama.
“I’ve learned that the standards for quality of life differ depending on where you are,” says Glass, who co-founded the personal finance app, Ostrich, in 2019 with the mission to “bring financial literacy to the world.” The service is free. It isn’t tied to any banking system. Glass wants to make sure it’s accessible to everyone, especially those who might not even know what a financial portfolio is.
Glass’ inspiration began in high school when his parents divorced during the economic collapse of 2008.
“Money caused too much stress on their relationship,” he says. “I remember thinking that people should be able to live on small budgets and still be happy.”
He wanted to find a way to help his mom. He also wanted to de-stress money concerns for undocumented farmworkers he met in South Florida and for Burmese refugees he lived with in Asia—both experiences he had through Rollins’ Immersion program. While in Thailand on a Fulbright Scholarship, Glass put his theory about financial planning for any income level to a real-life test. Living on $500 per month, he actually saved money. And he did it without losing weight or sleep.
“It’s all about simplifying a plan so you aren’t burdened every day,” says Glass. “What we’re doing with Ostrich ties back 100 percent to those Immersion trips.”
Glass and his fellow Rollins alumni are more marketable because of the experiences at Rollins they had to apply what they were learning through hands-on opportunities like Immersions, campus employment, and study abroad. In fact, the AAC&U’s recent survey says that 84 percent of employers are more likely to consider a candidate who’s had a global learning experience that exposes them to diverse cultures and perspectives.
Raul Carril ’15 ’16MBA served as Immersion facilitator at Rollins. “It had a huge impact on how I listen, learn, and get comfortable with the uncomfortable,” he says. Carril is now manager of customer success at Datadog, but he’s most enthused to talk about other Rollins students whose Immersion trips advanced their young careers. Bethany Eriksen ’15 works on content development and social responsibility for Disney. Aditya Mahara ’12 is helping advance health-care technology at AstraZeneca. Ian Wallace ’12 works in the U.S. Department of Defense.
“That’s what stands out to me when I look back on my time at Rollins,” says Carril. “Their work is incredible; it’s inspiring.”
David Lord graduated from Rollins in 1969 and has served on the College’s Board of Trustees. Recently, he set up a $1 million endowment for the Student and Community Experience Fund. But in retirement he still sounds like an energetic Rollins student. He helps plan Immersion experiences. He participates in them. He knows dozens and dozens of current students and alumni. More importantly, he knows their stories.
“There’s a perception of Rollins students that is not always accurate,” says Lord. “On one Immersion we were serving meals to homeless people, and I saw tears welling up in the eyes of a student. When we talked later, I found out she’d once been homeless herself. I cannot tell you what it’s like to work with students who come from difficult backgrounds, who find a spark because of Immersions or fellowships or leadership opportunities, and then blossom.”
The name William Glass is mentioned to Lord. “I love what he’s doing with Ostrich.” He knows all about Glass and Carril and Hernandez. Lord is among the Rollins donors who provide more than programs. They kickstart countless lives and careers, with impacts into perpetuity.
The Rollins Model
Every day, most of Rollins’ 3,272 students walk along Tars Plaza, past the iconic Barker flagpole and alongside Mills Lawn, where they eat, study, and engage in impromptu chats with professors. A reimagined building at the center of it all has quickly become the hallmark of Rollins’ renewed emphasis on applied learning: Kathleen W. Rollins Hall.
Within this kinetic hive of student activity, Tars find a humming network of resources to turn wish lists into realities: internships, field studies, mentors, resume consulting, study abroad, and leadership programs, among others. In its first 40 days after opening in early 2020, there was a marked increase in student engagement across these offices and programs that now shared physical space in addition to a dedication to applied learning.
“There’s a science behind the placement of Kathleen W. Rollins Hall,” says Meyer. “It’s the physical center of campus. That’s our intended message here. If we’re creating pathways into the world, then the heartbeat of the mission should be at the center of everything.”
It’s coincidence that the benefactor, Kathleen W. Rollins ’75, shares a name with her alma mater. Her gift, however, is purposeful, and it’s a purpose that’s resonating with students.
“I see it as an embodiment of how closely knit Rollins is,” says Renee Sang ’21, a double major in studio art and critical media and cultural studies who traveled to Morocco and London for internships in journalism and documentary-making before flipping her own script and accepting a role as global engagement coordinator for Rollins. From her office in Kathleen W. Rollins Hall, she is helping other students apply their passions around the world until she hits the world stage once again next fall to start grad school at University College London. “This,” she says, “is what interdisciplinary education looks like when it’s put into action.”
It’s working. Rollins ranks first in the nation for the percentage of students who participate in alternative breaks. It’s among the top 10 for the number of undergraduates who study abroad. Not surprisingly, Florida Campus Compact named Rollins the most engaged campus in the state.
“The world is in a constant state of change, but I’m comfortable with that,” says Neinken. “The learning model outside the classroom at Rollins prepared me for anything. I think it would be nice if more students could have that kind
Taking it to 100 Percent
Hamilton Holt had a vision for making Rollins a nexus between "receiving an education" and “making a difference.” He’d be impressed with today’s numbers: 75 percent of Rollins’ students study abroad and about 60 percent have internships. For the 15th president of Rollins, Grant Cornwell, the numbers also mean there are still students who don’t see the outside world or the inside of an organization. Or, perhaps more accurately, they can’t.
"The pathways are set up," says Meyer, "but putting students on them takes financial support. Studying internationally. Internships. Immersions. Some students don’t have the resources."
Holt couldn’t have seen what Cornwell sees today: a fruitful past. In the 90-plus years since Holt became president of Florida’s first college, thousands of young people have gone out as Rollins graduates and given back, as alumni, to the place where it all started—all so the next waves of students can find and follow their own pathways into the world where differences are made and problems are solved.
"Donors have made a lot of our stories possible," says Hernandez from his Microsoft office in Miami. He specifically mentions Lord, who hours earlier happened to mention Hernandez from his home 2,000 miles away in Colorado.
"When I think about alumni like David, it’s more than financial generosity. It’s the humility and the genuine care they have for each of today’s students. He will always be one of the greatest influences in my life."
All along the bridge from the past to the future, the sentiment is mutual.
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