Shaped by Service

January 09, 2019

By Katie Pearce ’19

Alexandria Tomkunas ’18 with building blocks
During her time at Rollins, Alexandria Tomkunas ’18 spent much of her time at Hume House, the College’s state-of-the-art child development center that combines preschool and undergraduate studies.Photo by Scott Cook.

At Rollins, Alexandria Tomkunas ’18 discovered a passion for service and learned how to build a career out of making a difference.

Alexandria Tomkunas ’18 came to Rollins because of the Bonner Leaders Program, a national initiative that identifies and encourages changemakers and develops their passion for service in intensive and sustained ways. It was through this service leadership scholarship program that Tomkunas discovered her love of teaching while working at a local Title I school during her first semester. From there, service became about so much more than volunteering—it became a calling. While at Rollins, Tomkunas taught philosophy to children, researched educational institutions in India alongside the Gandhi family, and partnered with Rwandan teachers on ways to teach English and incorporate technology.

“Rollins really focuses on this idea of global citizenship,” says Tomkunas. “I don’t feel that I’m confined to working in the United States or keeping my knowledge constrained within the framework of the U.S. I’m able to think across borders and boundaries.”

During her time at Rollins, the philosophy and psychology double major crossed those borders and boundaries more than once: first on a field study to India, where she saw poverty for the first time in a different context, and then a year later in Uganda and Rwanda, where she worked with the Global Livingston Institute to develop sustainable solutions to problems facing these communities. With each trip, her passion for education and love of children grew.

Tomkunas credits Rollins and her close-knit relationships with her professors for the ability to channel her newfound passions into a career. For the next two years, she’ll work for Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that places promising educators in low-income communities to help confront educational inequity. After that, she’ll pursue a PhD in education policy and plans to devote herself to helping schools with the least funding and the most need.

Despite her busy schedule at Teach for America, we recently had the chance to catch up with the changemaker to talk about her time at Rollins and how it changed her worldview.

Alexandria Tomkunas ’18 sits on the edge of a sandbox
Photo by Scott Cook.

You came to Rollins because of the Bonner Leaders program. Tell us more about your experience as a Bonner Leader. “I found out about the program during Experience Rollins. Bonner is why I chose Rollins over the other schools I was considering. During my first semester, I got to spend a month with a couple of community partners and ended up getting paired with Fern Creek Elementary School permanently. That was one of the most formative experiences I had—it helped me decide what I wanted to do with my future—service leadership and the idea of dedicating my life to helping others really resonated with me.”

How did you partner with Rollins professors? “I was able to work with so many professors on different independent-study projects and research projects, which really highlights how incredible Rollins is. The main involvement I had was working with the Philosophy for Kids program. It’s a teaching method that uses children’s books to engage in philosophical discussions that promote critical thinking. I first got involved in Dr. [Erik] Kenyon’s class and then worked with Dr. [Debra] Wellman. I helped teach an rFLA class with her where we worked with first-year students and then with ninth-graders at Winter Park High School. I continued the project with Dr. [Sharon] Carnahan and ended up doing my honors thesis on it. I evaluated the method in a preschool classroom and looked at how it engages students, affects participation, and develops critical-thinking skills.”

You mention co-teaching a course with education professor Debra Wellman. What was that like? “She was one of my mentors, and she really helped me think through what a teaching career might look like. I reached out to her to see if I could sit in on her rFLA class to learn more and she said that because I’d been working on the other project with Dr. Kenyon, I could serve as an informal teaching assistant. I got to teach different parts of the course and help some of the first-years think through the process of teaching philosophy to children and help them apply that in an actual classroom. Dr. Wellman and I worked on an article together that we’re now trying to publish.”

How have your two majors—psychology and philosophy—converged in your education? “Philosophy is about people’s concepts of the world, and psychology encompasses the idea of how we research concepts of the world and the way that people think and experience the world. The Philosophy for Kids program, which I loved and worked a lot with, was the perfect convergence of my two majors. It used philosophical concepts in educating children to develop critical-thinking skills and promote an educational experience for them.”

Tomkunas sits with one of her mentors.
Alexandria Tomkunas ’18 with one of her mentors, psychology professor and Hume House executive director Sharon Carnahan.Photo by Scott Cook.

You studied in India, Uganda, and Rwanda during your time at Rollins. What were your biggest takeaways from those experiences? “Going to India in 2017 with Dr. [Margaret] McLaren on a field study was the first time I ever left the country other than a cruise to the Caribbean. We did two research projects looking at education in India and Gandhi’s specific philosophy of education. Getting to see poverty in a context other than in the United States was a very different experience and challenged a lot of my perspectives on the world. It made me want to be involved in education as a career, and I ended up developing a nonviolence curriculum with her for elementary school students. In Uganda and Rwanda, we went to see how Rollins could best partner with the Global Livingston Institute, which takes students from the U.S. to Uganda and Rwanda to develop sustainable solutions to the problems the communities are facing. The solutions had to be sustainable in the country so that once the we left, the residents could continue implementing the projects we worked on.”

What advice do you have for incoming first-year students? “Value the relationships you make at Rollins. Many of the friends I made will be my friends for life. Staff members and professors are really there for students, so you should take advantage of those relationships. Those connections and their willingness to help you are fundamental parts of the Rollins experience.”

Students wearing caps and gowns walk to a commencement ceremony on Rollins College’s campus.

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