By Mylin Batipps
Social Media Editor
Any student who has experienced being a freshman at the College can say they have impacted a community outside the campus through Community Engaged Learning (CEL) programs. Not only has this shown the College’s dedication to student-led service, but it has also won the school a Community Engagement Classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
The award is highly competitive, and only 8 percent of colleges and universities across the nation have received the award, according to Patrick Donohue, assistant provost for Community Engaged Learning and executive director of the Bonner Institute.
“To be honest, it is still sinking in,” Donohue said. “Since it is February now, I will say it is similar to winning the Super Bowl, with one exception — we get to keep the trophy on our mantle till 2016, when the designation expires and we have to reapply.”
Students are given many opportunities by the College to immerse themselves in CEL. Whether it’s through the graduation requirement in which they have to participate in an eight-hour “CEL Day” during freshman year, or whether it’s through Advanced CEL programs that are specific to some majors, students are constantly being provided ways to give to the communities in Trenton and make sure no one who is in need is left behind.
According to Donohue, the College’s initiative for the CEL program blossomed in 2006.
“At that time, there were approximately 24 Bonner Scholars, a handful of FSP sections engaged in CEL or Advanced CEL courses and two staff members,” Donohue said. “There are now 100 Bonners, 42 participating FSP sections, approximately 26 engaged Advanced CEL professors and 22 full and part-time staff — almost all of which are grant-funded.”
There were a number of factors that contributed to the CEL program evolving into an integral part in every student’s college experience, Donohue mentioned. One of them was the expansion of the Bonner Community Scholars program, a four-year scholarship program that allows students to perform extensive community service while enrolling full-time at the College.
Because of the increase in the size of the program, members were able to create a graduation requirement for all students, which is a first-year curriculum requirement for freshmen. This allows students to work with professors during their first-year seminar programs and partner with community organizations in Trenton.
The collaboration among students, staff and organizations, in turn, earned the College a $500,000 endowment gift by the Bonner Foundation a few years ago — a milestone rarely achieved by institutions in the nation.
“We are the only endowed school in New Jersey and one of only a few in the country,” Donohue said.
It takes more than a student paying attention in class for him or her to become successful, which is why Donohue and the Bonner Center implemented community engaged learning. According to the American Association of Colleges and Universities, community engaged learning has the largest positive “boost” effect on student learning and development than any other high-impact practice.
“In other words, it really enhances the impact of a traditional course,” Donohue said. “You can’t always learn everything you need to learn to be a good and effective citizen or a professional in your future field from a comfortable campus or home.”
Upperclassmen still look back to their CEL Day from their freshman year and think of how it shaped them. Senior sociology major Jason Hammer visited the Arc Mercer, a center in Trenton that prides on creating opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“I greatly appreciated the experience as it allowed me to be introduced to a part of the new community that I would be living in for the next four years,” Hammer said. “I think it is especially important for freshmen to leave the ‘College bubble’ and get more involved in the incredibly diverse community that surrounds campus.”
Many programs and organizations at the College allow students to travel to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK), which provides more than 3,000 meals a week to the hungry in Trenton. For junior deaf and hard of hearing education major Samantha Falvey, this was her CEL Day.
“I think the event added a new aspect to the idea of a soup kitchen,” Falvey said. “Because the organization was not only giving out food but also introduced free shows and activities for kids (sports games, face painting, balloon making and crafts stations), it was able to emphasize on the idea of a united community willing to help one another.”
For some students, however, the Trenton community came to them at the College. Senior self-designed religious studies major Britta Nippert taught mini lessons to students that visited the college from an elementary school in Trenton.
“I would say even if the children didn’t learn much from our lessons, engagement on a college campus can be inspiring for young students who may not know what options are open to them and what it feels like to participate in a college atmosphere,” Nippert said.
According to Donohue, the College’s CEL program is looking to expand even more within the next few years. For instance, he and the Bonner Center are looking to integrate Advanced CEL courses into every single major at the College, as well as provide separate major and minor programs dedicated to community-engaged learning. Those are to only list a few.
“We’d like to create a Faculty Fellow position that would help us develop a more deliberate undergraduate research program that focuses on community problems or challenges,” Donohue said. “We’d also like to create more pilots like the one we are involved in with the IMM department — that creates opportunities for students to work on CEL projects for credit for an entire year.”
Until those plans are put to action, Donohue, the Bonner Center and the campus community can celebrate how far the College’s program has come with Carnegie’s Community Engagement Classification.
“It means a great deal — it is extremely satisfying and humbling at the same time,” Donohue said.