By Rachel Stengel '14
03/27/2018 • Rider University News
Every year during spring break, a group of new Bonner Community Scholars participate in an immersive Freshman Year Experience to fully understand the essence of volunteerism. Typically, they're thrown into the unfamiliar rural landscape of West Virginia to complete manual labor service projects — everything from shoveling coal to re-siding or painting homes — but an impending nor'easter sidetracked the group's traditional plans this year.
"The Freshman Year Experience is the cornerstone of the Bonner program. It really changes the students' perspective on service and is so impactful on their lives," says Joan Liptrot, assistant director of Campus Life for Service Learning. "Since the snow threw a wrench into our plans, we needed to come up with a way to create a similar experience locally."
The Rider Bonner Community Scholars Program requires students to complete at least 300 service hours per year. Rider is part of a national network of 70 American colleges and universities that provide scholarships to students and allow them to become civically engaged in their communities.
The week-long Freshman Year Experience helps them to better understand the ideals of leadership through service learning. Their goal, Liptrot says, is simple: "to leave a place better than you found it." With Trenton, N.J., only a few miles away and nearly 30 percent of the population living in poverty, Liptrot knew the 17 Bonner Scholars would have a wealth of opportunities to work in the local community.
The group volunteered at a few familiar service locations such as the Trenton Area Soup kitchen, providing food preparation and service, and the Rescue Mission of Trenton, sorting clothing donations for the homeless. An unforeseen benefit of the local experience was uncovering new service opportunities that could be expanded upon in the future.
"Working locally during this year's Freshman Year Experience was great because it helped us find some additional opportunities in the community," Liptrot says. "During one service event, we connected with a local agency that assists former prisoners and drug addicts. A few of our students are criminal justice majors so it highlighted the potential for forging a stronger connection between what they're doing through Bonner and in their coursework."
Arm in Arm, a Trenton food pantry, Millhill Child and Family Development, an organization devoted to providing educational and behavioral health services to children and families, and Rivera Community Middle School were some of the new outlets the group was able to assist. The Bonner Scholars helped families pick out healthy food, cleaned up a children's playground, prepared a community garden and painted diversity murals at these locations.
Intense was the only way to describe the experience, says freshman public relations major and Bonner Scholar Lauren Brolo.
"We learned so much by volunteering at so many locations in such a short amount of time; we were exhausted," she says. "Learning to be that selfless changes your view of the world. You stop thinking about what's going on in your life — that paper you need to finish, that argument you got into — and focus solely on what others need."
To further recreate the secluded experience they would have had on the traditional trip, the group moved into the old Convent at Saint Ann’s Church, which is now Casa Retreat House run by the Center for FaithJustice, for five days. A key part of the experience involves daily reflections and team building in a shared space. Students also learned to "live poor," according to Liptrot, as they were only allotted $4 per day for meals and had to work together to make group-wide dinners.
Service changes the way we perceive the world, Liptrot says. Civic and community engagement has always been the focus of the Bonner program, but it is also one of the key categories of the University's Engaged Learning Program. Liptrot hopes some of the new connections in the local community can also benefit students outside of Bonner who are looking to participate in community service.
"Students can learn so much from community service because it's never about what you want to do, but what people need. That type of mentality truly changes a person's thinking and understanding of the world," she says.