In fall 2015, the Center for Excellence in Learning Through Service (CELTS) celebrated the 25th anniversary of its Bonner Scholars program along with its own 15th anniversary. The celebration included several activities and events involving current Bonner Scholars, staff and alumni. “Ask Me Why I Serve,” the motto of the semester-long celebration, was displayed on the back of the blue celebratory T-shirts worn by Bonners and other students affiliated with CELTS.
The roots of CELTS trace back to the mid-’60s and the start of Students for Appalachia, a vibrant community service program for several decades, and evolved through the years by adding more and more service programs and community partnerships under its umbrella. Currently, CELTS administers several programs through which students can serve their community, obtain valuable leadership skills, and integrate service into their academic and labor requirements, as well as their co-curricular college experience. Berea Buddies, Berea Teen Mentoring, Adopt-a-Grandparent, Habitat for Humanity, the Hispanic Outreach Program, the Service-Learning program and the Bonner Scholars program are only a few of the multiple service opportunities CELTS offers to students.
In 1990, Bertram and Corella Bonner, founders of the Bonner Foundation, established the first Bonner Scholars Program at Berea College, making the College the first institution to be part of a network that currently spans 60 colleges and universities. Each year, Berea’s program admits 15 first-year students based on their scholarship, service activities and demonstrated leadership potential. The students are expected to remain with the program by holding a service-oriented labor position throughout their college years. During this time, the program guides them through a structured program of training in leadership and team-building skills and opportunities to work with community partners.
The students also get opportunities to network and share resources with fellow Bonners from other colleges and universities in Kentucky and beyond through gatherings like the Bonner Foundation’s annual Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) and the annual Sophomore Exchange program. Every year, CELTS takes some of its Bonner Scholars to the SLI, where they participate in workshops and networking meetings with students from other member institutions.
Berea hosted last year’s Sophomore Exchange in early December. Sophomore- level Bonner Scholars from Union College, Centre College and Lindsey Wilson College were invited to participate in a daylong workshop on communicating social issues that the students might encounter in their community engagements.
A part of the Bonner Scholars program’s anniversary celebration was a special version of its annual alumni panel, held during the labor meeting before homecoming weekend. This year, the panel invited alumni who were part of the first Bonner cohorts of the early ’90s, some of whom are currently community partners who work with CELTS. The alumni shared with current Scholars what they learned by incorporating service into their college journey, and how service has impacted their career path.
The celebration also included a photo exhibit held in the Hutchins Library, displaying the development of the program through its 25 years. A reception was held for staff and alumni who had been Bonner Scholars, or had worked with CELTS or Students for Appalachia. After the exhibition, the photo display moved to its permanent location, the second-floor hallway of Stephenson Hall.
Because Berea’s Bonner Scholars program began the same year as the Bonner Foundation itself, they celebrated their joint anniversary during the Foundation’s annual Summer Leadership Institute at Davidson College. The Berea delegation included current Bonner Scholars, alumni, and community partners along with President Lyle Roelofs and Dr. Linda Strong-Leek, vice president for diversity and inclusion. “It was a wonderful event, bringing together past and present Bonners, as well as the faculty and staff who work with them every day,” said Dr. Strong-Leek. “During such events, students not only see and understand the work of their current counterparts, but they also see the trajectories of many Bonners and know that there is a wonderful world of Bonners who are making a difference in the world.”
Ashley Cochrane, director of CELTS, and the Service-Learning and Bonner Scholars Programs, said that CELTS and the Bonner Scholars program provide support to help students figure out how they can make a commitment to service and connect it to their academic journey and interests. “I think what’s unique about the Bonner Scholars program is that it is a four-year experience and it’s a cohort experience,” she added. “We select fifteen students from each incoming class of students who agree to be part of the program for all four years of their college life. So they get to connect with the students in their class who are different from each other in many ways, but who still have that common passion for community service and civic engagement.”
Sheila Lyons ’87, program associate of CELTS, has been part of the Bonner Scholars program almost from the start. She remembers the early years of the program to have been more challenging in that the students participated in the program on top of their regular labor positions. Lyons believes the program now has a more defined leadership program than ever. “There is a well-structured program now that teaches the incoming students how to work in a team and all the skills they need to be a leader,” she said. Speaking of the benefits of the program for students, she said, “It benefits the students and the community as a labor program. But I think it goes beyond the labor program because of the very structured training that the students gain in leadership and group skills.”
Aaron Hannah ’16, business major and operations manager of CELTS, joined the program due to his life-long interest in service. “My entire life had been driven around service work. I knew that Berea was a work study college, so I looked for a way to make my work-study align with my goal in life. I found Bonner Scholars to be perfect for me in that I can help people and also work my way through college,” he said. Hannah took advantage of the program’s Summer of Service feature, a two-summer-long Bonner Foundation funded service requirement, to return to his hometown and work in a homeless shelter while starting a food drive, where he was able to raise over 25,000 pounds of food in Ashland and eastern Greenup counties in northeastern Kentucky.
Hannah also stated that his position as operations manager of the Center has helped him connect his interest in service with his business major. Speaking of the benefits the program has given him, he said, “It definitely has altered the way I look at the world. Growing up, I was never exposed to diversity and different thinking. Being immersed in the Bonner group, you’re required to spend time with your teammates and work as a team. So, it has matured me in many ways by giving me skills to develop conversations that are inclusive of many different ideologies and thoughts.”
“My parents instilled in me very early that service to others was necessary and that it would be the greatest joy of my life,” said Geri Guy Kinlaw ’08, describing why she joined the Bonner program during her years in Berea. Kinlaw, a history major, noted that the Bonner Scholars afforded her the opportunity to pursue her passion in peace and social justice. “It gave me the opportunity to learn the difference between community service and the service that heals me as well as the community that I am helping. It taught me not to view individuals or groups as victims but as someone who is struggling like me. It taught me that we can find freedom together.” After Berea, Kinlaw went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of South Carolina, and she currently teaches high school in Greenville, South Carolina.
“The Bonner Scholars program is just a part of the work we do in CELTS,” said Cochrane. “Any student can come in and make service a part of their college experience right from their first weeks of college, and there will be space for them to engage with many social issues through our volunteer program. One of the things we say here in CELTS is that everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner. Our students are always learning from our community partners and service programs, but also from each other.”