“Community engagement allows our students to take the theory of the curricular and the classroom and to put it into practice,” said Meredith Hein, director of the Center for Leadership and Community Engagement (CLCE) at Rollins College. “It allows them to define who they are, to begin asking bigger questions and thinking bigger about the world we live in.”
Rollins College, a private liberal arts college near Orlando, Florida, has long been recognized both locally and nationally for its dedication to community engagement. Since receiving the Presidential Award for the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll in 2010, the community engagement program has only grown stronger, organizing more than fifty programs, initiatives, and community events every year. CLCE works to engage 100 percent of Rollins students in community service before graduation.
CLCE depends more heavily on endowments, grants, and donations than many other departments at Rollins, so finding funding is essential to continuing their work. In 2012, the Miller Foundation gave a grant of $90,000 to the community engagement program at Rollins and has continued to faithfully support the program since then.
For the first few years, funds from the Miller Foundation were used primarily to support Rollins’ Immersion Program, which has grown into one of the largest college alternative break programs in the country based on participating students per campus size. Today, the Miller Foundation’s gifts support other areas of CLCE as well, such as funding for a shuttle bus (used for transportation to and from CLCE initiatives), SPARC Day (a community service day for first-year students), Camp Alliance (an initiative to support students from underserved populations), and more.
“The support [of the Miller Foundation] has changed the way we’re able to do this work,” Meredith said. “It allows us to run an award-winning program that other colleges and universities look to as a model.”
Changing Students’ Lives
Raul Carril (’15), graduate assistant for CLCE, says that Rollins aims to connect students’ experiences in the classroom with greater issues in society, which is something that CLCE is uniquely designed to do.
“Community engagement impacts the Rollins College campus by providing these meaningful learning opportunities for our students to put what they’re learning in the classroom into practice,” he said. “More so than having an event that makes you feel good inside, it’s creating change in our communities; it’s opening the perspectives of different individuals to careers they could possibly take, or figuring out how their dreams and ambitions might relate to making an impact on the community. . . . Community engagement provides the vehicle to really connect individuals’ passions with the world’s greatest needs.”
Having a deep appreciation for the value of community service is something that Shelby McGuire (’15) says she didn’t witness in her friends who attended other universities. Whenever she talked with them about her excitement for community service, she usually received blank stares in return.
“I think it’s what makes this campus unique,” Shelby said. “Everything we’re able to offer—from immersion, to the various service experiences and the very deep understanding of what service learning is . . . understanding why we did the service and what comes next—that’s what makes this program super special.”
Shelby became involved with CLCE when she was placed in their office as part of a work-study program on her second day at Rollins. As a result of that chance work placement, she became part of a student-led service group, a founding member of a student-run foundation, a resident hall assistant, and the student coordinator for a leadership program where she now works as an AmeriCorps public ally.
“I don’t have a clue what my college career would have looked like [without community engagement],” she said. “This became my home, this became where all my friends were and where I was constantly coming back to. It gave me mentors, it gave me friends. . . . I was able to feel like even though I was a student, I was making a difference. I wasn’t just here getting my degree. I was here doing the work, putting my knowledge into practice, and getting some practical experience.”
Meredith has seen the community engagement program influence many students like Shelby by giving them a place to belong and helping them discover their passions.
“I could sit here for hours and talk about this work,” she said, “but when you sit around a table and you see a student light up and talk about having an hour-long conversation with someone they met on an immersion or how that immersion led them to change their major from pre-law to education—it’s powerful to listen to.”
Building Active Leaders
In everything it does, CLCE seeks to prepare its students to become global citizens and responsible leaders. Meredith believes deeply in the combined power of community engagement and leadership.
“When students engage in service, they’re becoming better leaders and thus, when they leave Rollins, will go out into their communities and will become active and engaged citizens in their positions and in their communities,” Meredith said. “And when they take on a leadership role, what better way to model good leadership than to engage in community engagement type work?”
“I feel like the experiences I had here prepared me more so than maybe my degree did,” she said. “I don’t necessarily talk about economic theory every day, but working with students and community partners, working on a team, I learned how to do that because I was doing community engagement activities. I had a leadership role that prepared me to have a professional role like I do now.”
Community engagement plays a critical role in forming students during their years at Rollins and beyond, and it’s integral to the core values of the college.
“Our community engagement programs are just a part of what makes Rollins what it is, but they’re so ingrained in the mission and in making our students who they are and in preparing our students for the next step in their career,” Meredith said. “None of that would be possible without the support of the Miller Foundation.”