Bonner Program Model


The Bonner Program is a four-year, service-based college scholarship program that affords students an "access to education and opportunity to serve."  The program recruits and supports a diverse pool of low-income, first generation students who are committed to changing the world through service.  The program model is cohort-based (5-40 students in each class), intensive (280+ hours per school year and, for most Bonners, full-time summer service internships), and developmental (integrating experiential, curricular, and co-curricular service and learning leading to a capstone community-engagement project and a culminating reflection presentation). 

Below we describe the four-year developmental model, the six Common Commitments upon which the program operates, and the kinds of service leadership roles Bonners in the program.


Student development MODEL

The Bonner Program supports students through all four years of their time at Brown with combining community engagement and academic scholarship. In this video, several participants talk about their experience in the program.

The Bonner Program is built along a four-year developmental model for students. This model translates into a scaffolded set of expectations and experiences, both in the context of community service and engagement and within students' academic and co-curricular learning.

At the core of this model is the opportunity for students to work part-time over each semester in the academic year, and often supplemented by full-time summer internships as well. A student can even stay with the same partner – typically a school, nonprofit organization, or government agency– over multiple years, taking on increased leadership, program, and management roles. Even when a student moves to different sites, s/he is expected to grow. Through intensive training, reflection, and advising, students develop and refine their "Community Learning Agreements" and positions each year. 

Bonners community engagement focus and roles evolve over their four years in the program, as shown by this sample chart showing how the 140 hours per semester change from the first year to last. Click to enlarge image.

Bonner Scholars and Leaders engage intensively in service as well as training, education, and reflection (8-10 hours each week) during all four years of college.  They serve in schools, nonprofit organizations, and governmental agencies to address community identified needs and to tackle issues like education, safe and affordable housing, food insecurity, college access and youth development, environmental sustainability, and so on. Bonner Scholars (and many Bonner Leaders) also engage in at least two full-time summer internships. Effectively, students experiences correspond with those of high-impact educational practices. 

Through students’ sustained involvement over multiple semesters and years, and supported through intentional education and reflection, students develop a range of skills, knowledge areas, and post-graduate outcomes. The student developmental model also provides structural supports for students to grow as community leaders and civic minded professional on and off campus.

Overview presentation on the Bonner Program.

Students identify, develop, and integrate service and civic engagement passions, academic studies, and career interests. Students are challenged and supported to grow as leaders as well as demonstrate active citizenship. At service sites, in courses, in Bonner meetings, and in special roles (like Bonner Congress), students take on challenging responsibilities as they advance. 

The four-year student development model has five stages we refer to as the “5 E’s.” These are implemented in co-curricular, curricular, and integrated ways.  In service positions with schools, governmental agencies, and non-profit organizations, students learn and apply a variety of skills and knowledge areas. Their work builds the capacity of programs, organizations, and communities. 

Expectation — Bonner Programs intentionally recruit and accept students who show an interest in and commitment to community service and engagement.  

Explore — New Bonners are intentionally involved in a variety of service sites and activities, which helps them to then identity their passions and make a long-term commitment to a particular place (community), site, and issue areas. 

Experience — Students then focus on developing more skill and knowledge within their given place (community), site, and issue areas.  They begin to understand more deeply the mission, operations, and programs of a particular agency and to develop greater understanding of community issues. 

The 5 E's summarize the four-year Bonner developmental model. Click to enlarge image.

Example — As students progress they take on expanded service leadership roles and responsibilities on campus and in communities (often local, national and global). They many lead and mobilize students at their site and engage in complex projects like related undergraduate research.

Expertise — Finally, students work on community-engaged capstone projects, often in the site or issue in which they have engaged multiple years. They even initiate program development or assume management.  Students often integrate academic studies, through capstones, and career interests. Students create a culminating public Senior Presentation of Learning, an opportunity to reflect on and share their entire developmental journey, learning, and accomplishments with peers, faculty, partners, and family.


Bonner Common Commitments

The Bonner Foundation strategic initiatives are guided by a set of values and aspirations expressed through the Bonner Common Commitments.  These six areas were developed in the tenth year of the program through a network-wide listening process.  They both define and focus our community engagement and student development strategies.

Community Building:  establish and sustain a vibrant community of place, personal relationships, and common interests.


The intensive, four-year, cohort-based design of the Bonner Program has enabled campuses to deepen partnerships in their local communities, which in turn has strengthened and expanded opportunities for campus-wide engagement. Local  organizations depend on the steady, multiyear presence of Bonners who provide the backbone to many of their programs.  In turn, through the campus-wide community engagement centers, Bonners help support other student service efforts at these agencies through student clubs and organizations, as well as faculty-led service-learning and community-based research courses.

Diversity:  Respect the many different dimensions of diversity in our public lives.


Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of the Bonner Program’s goals and experience.  The selection criteria of the Bonner Program ensure a diverse team of Bonner students enter the program each year. In turn, Bonner students are serving in a wide range of settings, both near campus but also around the country and internationally.  To prepare students for these different experiences and their service roles in diverse settings, campus staff provide on-going skill training and reflection opportunities on issues of related to diversity.  As a result, Bonners are equipped to be effective participants and leaders in the program, across campus, and in the various communities they enter and belong.  

It is important to note that the 2000-2008 longitudinal Bonner Student Impact Surveys told us that students valued and gained significant skills in dialogue with others across difference in the program, and that this the strongest predictor of cultivating civic outcomes after college. We also believe these experiences and relationships, both in the program with other Bonners who themselves are from diverse backgrounds and in the community with agency staff and clients and others (who often serve in an informal mentoring role), contributes significantly to the positive retention to graduation rates among students in the Bonner Program.

Civic Engagement:  Participate intentionally as a citizen in the democratic process, actively engaging in public policy and direct service.


The Bonner Program’s four-year developmental model for community and civic engagement has both proven the value of such an approach in terms of student outcomes but also provided a series of best practices for adoption by academic departments and other programs campus-wide.  The developmental path moves from short-term direct service opportunities (e.g., tutoring) to leadership roles (e.g., coordinating the after-school tutoring program) to capacity-building projects (e.g., researching evidence-based practices in tutoring programs in response to requests from community partner seeking to redesign their program) and even social action campaigns (e.g.,  working with a local network of after-school programs seeking increased funding for their programs from the local school board).

As we describe below, new models are emerging on campuses for linking academic courses, direct service experiences (including school-year and summer internships), and community-based research into defined issue- or skill-based civic engagement pathways culminating in a community-engaged capstone project. 

In this process, we have also begun to organize resources and networking on issue areas in common across our network of campuses.

Social Justice:  Advocate for fairness, impartiality, and equality while addressing systemic social and environmental issues.


We have had a longstanding emphasis on a continuum of service that leads from charity to justice, as outlined above (and allows for a student or graduate to find their place along this work during and after college). Our Bonner Student Impact Survey has shown us that developmentally most Bonners come to an understanding of social justice (and the systemic nature of the challenges facing communities and individuals in need) in their third and fourth years. This occurs through formal and informal dialogue with faculty, community partners, other Bonners and Bonner staff.  

To further this goal, we have been encouraging schools to develop partnerships with various kinds of local and regional collaboratives (e.g., New Brunswick Community Food Alliance or a local Cradle to Career Network) which are working at a systemic level to address a series of related issues.  At the same time, we have defined a series of organizational capacity-building roles that students may address through senior capstone and other individual or team-based projects.  These are:  community-based and policy research, communication, fundraising, training and program development, and volunteer recruitment and management.

International Perspective:  Develop international understanding that enables Bonners to participate successfully in a global society.


The place-based (and issue-oriented) emphasis of the Bonner Program has defined the international service trips and partnerships in our network, where campuses have built sustained relationships with specific communities internationally.  There is a concerted effort to provide education and training to students prior, during, and after these international service experiences.  

A variety of international service organizations have partnered with campuses in our network to assist with logistics, training, and education.  In addition, many campuses have found ways to provide an international experience for their students through serving with immigrant and refugee communities in their local communities.

Spiritual Exploration:  Explore personal beliefs while respecting the spiritual practices of others.


Our Student Impact Survey showed that 85% of Bonners were motivated to serve by their spiritual or religious beliefs. We have also seen a connection between the service commitments made by Bonners and their longer-term indicators of well-being and equanimity.  Bonner staff find various ways to incorporate reflection and discussion of motivations for service and sources of resiliency and meaning in the face of the challenges Bonners and other students are facing in their service and in their own lives.


Bonner Student Leadership

One of the most distinctive aspects of the Bonner Program is its focus on student voice and leadership. 

Our philosophy is that “students are the leaders of today,” not tomorrow.  Whether helping to launch a new Bonner Program, lead all of the volunteers at a service site, plan and run campus-wide or national events, or even be colleagues to faculty in facilitating the integration of community engagement with courses, students lead the program and broader engagement.


Bonner students play strong leadership roles within their Bonner Programs and campus-wide, as well as in community contexts (local, national, and even global). Leadership development is supported through intentional training and education (for instance, during regular meetings with class cohorts and the whole program), coursework, mentoring, and advising. Each program builds on these elements.

Using team structures for engagement and leadership has been shown to be a best practice, promoting deeper engagement, community capacity building, and student learning. In a program of 60 students, typically 15-20 take formalized roles.


Bonner Leadership Teams — Programs build a team with multiple students.  They may be organized into programmatic areas like recruitment, community building (Bonner Love), and public relations.  

Class Representatives — Many campuses also enlist selected representatives from each class (freshmen, etc.) to play leadership roles in planning and leading reflections and trainings, organize service trips, and play other roles.  These students are often part of the BLT. 

Site or Issue-Based Team Leaders — Students play a leadership role for their non-profit partner site, helping to coordinate other volunteers and activities. Some programs use broader issue teams (like hunger or the environment), which promote coordination and sharing of efforts across community agencies.  Students also lead these teams. 

Bonner Senior Interns — Students move into sophisticated program management roles, working alongside staff, faculty, and partners.  Senior Interns help manage the Bonner Program. High-Impact Interns work on projects to broaden and deepen engagement across the curriculum and institution. Community Impact Interns work as liaisons to service sites, doing research and analysis.

National Bonner Congress Representatives — Two representatives from each program participate in a national network, attending conferences twice a year and developing a “big idea” strategy to strengthen their programs.

Special Project Leaders — Other projects for students include organizing service events (like Sophomore Exchange), researching public policy and issues (PolicyOptions Interns) and more.