Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Campus-Community Involvement
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 10,
Number 1

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Campus-Community Involvement
Student Leadership: Making a Difference in the World
Access to Education, Opportunity to Serve
Berea College: Learning, Labor, and Service
A Developmental and Capacity-Building Model for Community Partnerships
The Power of a Sustained Relationship between Community Partners and Colleges and Universities
Faculty Involvement
Prequel to Civic Engagement: An African American Studies Research Seminar
Service Learning and Policy Change
Facilitating Student Growth as Citizens: A Developmental Model for Community-Engaged Learning
Student Experience
An Intentional and Comprehensive Student Development Model
Bonner: More Than a Model, a Lived Experience
Relationships First
Commitment to a Cause
Institutional Leadership
Preparing to Serve
Checklist from the President’s Chair
Curricular Transformation
LifeWorks and the Commons: A Model for General Education
The Case for Studying Poverty
Engaging with Difference Matters: Longitudinal Outcomes of the Cocurricular Bonner Scholars Program
Resources for Civic Engagement
Serving, Voting, and Speaking Out: Bonner Students Reflect on Civic Engagement

Berea College: Learning, Labor, and Service

By Meta Mendel-Reyes, director of the Center for Excellence in Learning Through Service (CELTS) and associate professor of general studies, Berea College

Berea College’s distinctive tradition of “learning, labor, and service” made it a natural choice to become the first Bonner scholars college in 1990. A nondenominational christian college in Kentucky, Berea was founded in 1855 as the first integrated and coed college in the south. Berea college provides a comprehensive liberal arts education for low-income students, primarily Appalachians and African Americans. All students receive a full-tuition scholarship and work ten to fifteen hours per week in positions ranging from food service to community service.

Berea students and staff from the Southern Mutual Help Association in New Iberea, Louisiana, worked together during a Hurricane Katrina service-learning class

Berea students and staff from the Southern Mutual Help Association in New Iberea, Louisiana, worked together during a Hurricane Katrina service-learning class.

The labor program makes it possible for students to work in teams to organize and implement various community service programs. The largest of these is Students for Appalachia, an umbrella that includes such activities as mentoring and tutoring children, visiting the elderly in long-term care, and promoting environmental justice. Bonner scholars hold community service positions throughout their four years, working together to run an after-school program as freshmen, and in the following years joining student-led service teams on campus or serving directly with community organizations.

In 2000, Berea College established the Center for Excellence in Learning Through Service (CELTS), whose mission is to “coordinate service-learning and student-led community service programs in order to educate students for leadership in service and social justice.” The Bonner Scholars Program plays a prominent role within CELTS, and the Bonner developmental model, “service as transformation,” has contributed to leadership development throughout the student-led programs.

One of the most important ways in which CELTS addresses civic engagement and diversity is through service learning. A student body composed of low-income Appalachians and African Americans enriches the study and practice of civic engagement because the students come from groups that have been disenfranchised throughout American history. However, our students and the groups to which they belong represent not victims but inspiring models whose political struggles help to bring the nation, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase, “back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep [in] . . . the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

In just a few years, service learning has grown rapidly at Berea. Today, approximately fifteen courses are taught each semester, representing twenty disciplines across campus. Our community partners include nonprofit agencies, community organizations, and schools. Berea College’s service-learning program has been nationally recognized by U.S. News and World Report as number one in 2002 and as one of the top twenty programs every year between 2003 and 2006 (schools were not ranked within the top twenty).

A Bonner scholar from Earlham College working with a child in a local school.

A Bonner scholar from Earlham College working with a child in a local school.

A recent service-learning class, Rebuilding Through Service: Lessons From Hurricane Katrina, exemplifies the values of civic engagement and diversity. During the 2006 January short term, students studied the impact of the hurricane, particularly on the poor and people of color, and then traveled to Louisiana to help with disaster relief. The trip was supported by a special grant program established by the Bonner Foundation in response to the disaster. Guided by their teachers, CELTS Director Meta Mendel-Reyes, and Bonner Scholars Director Betty Hibler, the students worked with a grassroots organization, Southern Mutual Help Association, in a rural area of the state. While helping clean out hurricane-damaged homes, students interacted closely with the families, who ranged from fourth-generation Cajun fishermen to an elderly African American couple.

The fact that our class was diverse racially but shared a common economic background helped students identify with the Katrina and Rita victims in an area characterized by its diverse population of African Americans, Cajuns, and Vietnamese and by its poverty. Similarly, the rural background of most of the students, plus the experience of rural life in Berea, helped them relate more easily to the people of Southwest Louisiana. As a result, the students were more likely to define service not as charity to the unfortunate, but as a shared struggle for equality and justice.

After their return, the students presented their findings to several Kentucky congressmen, thereby transforming their service experience into civic engagement. By offering first-person perspectives on the hurricane damage and the inspiring efforts of the people to recover, the students hoped to help their representatives understand the urgency of increased support to the Gulf region. Students were also able to share these perspectives with their peers through an interactive campus presentation. As one student reflected afterward,

Of all the courses that I have taken at Berea College . . . Rebuilding Through Service: Lessons From Katrina has had the greatest impact on me. It has been a week since the class ended, and already I miss the people, the stories, the experience. I found it strange that human beings bond over trauma and destruction. By trudging through the pain, loss, and sorrow, relationships are solidified. . . . “Community” is being redefined in the Gulf. Neighbors are helping neighbors, families have come together, and an already tight sense of culture and belonging is being strengthened further.

The experience of doing this work not only increased the students’ sense of belonging to a community, but gave students a sense of what it would be like to live this level of committed service and citizenship.

Questions, comments, and suggested resources should be directed to campbell@aacu.org.
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