A much-loved scholarship evolves to prepare students to become future leaders
By Derek Wadlington, College Chaplain, Director of the Curran Bonner Leader Program
When I first learned of the Chaplain vacancy at Wilson, the aspect of the position that most excited me was connecting students with service to the local community. Service for the common good is a passion of mine; I believe we are called to care for one another and to share the gifts and skills we have been given.
Once in the job, one of my duties was to oversee the Curran Scholarship. This was financial aid awarded to students in exchange for 260 volunteer hours per year. I use the past tense because Wilson is in the process of converting the Curran Scholarship to the Curran Bonner Leader Scholarship.
A short history of the scholarship will help explain this evolution. In 1933, Dr. William Curran’s bequest created a scholarship fund to financially reward students who achieved high academic standards and train them to a “thorough-going classical standard” — the goal was to give these students the skills and education to be leaders of their generation. Students who received the scholarship were expected to study Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, memorize portions of the Greater Catechism, attend and help with chapel services, and take part in community service activities. In 1993 the scholarship requirements shifted from a strong religious focus to a service focus with the revised expectation being that Curran Scholars would receive a grant in exchange for performing 260 hours of community service each academic year.
Three years ago, Wilson College President Barbara Mistick encouraged VP of Student Development and Dean of Students Mary Beth Williams to look into converting the scholarship to the Bonner Leader model — a program created by the Bonner Foundation, in which students commit to 250 hours per school year that is a combination of service, advocacy, and leadership training. Dean Williams was quite familiar with the program as she was a Bonner Scholar at Rhodes College while an undergraduate and helped create a Bonner program at Sewanee University. After an investigatory period, it was agreed that the Bonner Leader program would be a good fit for Wilson and Dean Williams asked that I transition the program.
Besides the name change to Curran Bonner Leader (CBL), there are several key changes to the program. The most important of which is to add an overall structure that a student follows over their four years at Wilson. Service is still at the forefront of the program and is its primary tenet. However, in reshaping the scholarship, the program has returned to the roots of the original Curran Scholarship’s focus on leadership. The addition of intentional leadership training is to nurture and fuel a passion for service while equipping the students to be leaders while on campus and in the world after they graduate. A further shift is that Wilson CBL is geared towards students who have a demonstrated financial need, with extra preference for students who are first-generation college students.
The mission of Wilson CBL is straightforward; it seeks to educate and empower students with the goal of nurturing and mobilizing thoughtful, caring, and diverse leadership dedicated to community service.
The Bonner Program motto is Access to Education, Opportunity to Serve, and its mission is to “transform students, communities, and campuses through service.” The Bonner Foundation was created in 1990 by Corella and Bertram Bonner to help first-generation and lower income students go to college and equip them to be successful while in school. The goal is not just to equip them with the skills to get through college, but to help them grow into community leaders through leadership education and community service.
“The Bonner Program gave me the opportunity to network with students on my campus who were as passionate about service as I was, and many of us are still in touch today,” Williams said of her time as a Bonner at Rhodes College. “We were encouraged to find service opportunities in our college community and think creatively about how we could build the programs into sustainable initiatives that would continue on even after our own graduation.”
The Bonner Program also helped Williams, who came from a family without firsthand experience of going to college before her, fit in and succeed as an undergraduate student. “As a first-gen college student I was lost — the program helped nurture me and guide me in ways I didn’t even know I needed. Volunteering alongside friends and working in service agencies over several years helped me make connections I never would have seen had the program not been there to help me reflect. It was really remarkable to be a part of something that was bigger than myself knowing it would last long after I had graduated!”
As CBL is built out, students will be embedded in local service agencies while at Wilson. The first year focuses on service within an organization. The idea is that as you work you learn what the organization does do and why they do it. During the second year, the student returns to the same agency, but with a year of service and knowledge behind them, they can grow into a leadership role and help with organizational problem solving and capacity building. In addition, a new first-year student may join them, giving them an opportunity to train a new volunteer. This continues to build over time, providing continuity and reliable volunteers to the community agency.
As well as working with an organization in the community, students take part in leadership and community training back on campus and are involved in on-campus clubs. This provides each student with basic leadership and problem-solving skills that will help them in their volunteer work, in their classwork, and, ultimately, in life. And as the student experiences personal growth, that benefit is shared with community agencies and all the folks with whom they interact on campus.
In addition, the students participate in a week-long service trip offered during January term each year. In 2020 CBL students helped provide leadership and organization while taking part in home restoration and rebuilding projects in the Tarboro, N.C., area.
While the program started before COVID arrived, the pandemic has put a major crimp in how the program has rolled out. Early in spring semester 2020, as Wilson students were preparing to begin in-person service at local agencies, those same agencies became unable to host in-person volunteers for safety reasons. Then most of the world shut down and turned to virtual learning, further adding to the challenge of community-building activities. After a hiatus to regroup, meetings have shifted to the virtual realm and, hopefully, in-person service will begin again with the fall 2021 semester, all contingent on safety protocols of the College and local agencies.
It takes special students to want to be part of the CBL program. A student has to be willing to commit 6-8 hours to the program each week, and they have to have a passion for service work. Showing up and doing the work is fine, but CBLs are expected to use that service to ask increasingly complex questions that might start with “Why does an agency do this in a certain way” to “Why do we need agencies to engage in this work at all?” Working to understand a problem and how to address it is an important step in critical thinking.
Delaney Glazer ’22 is a member of the first class of CBLs. As she puts it, “Community service guides my life. Doing it on a collegiate level, with the opportunity to help shape a new program, really excited me. I’m sad the pandemic prevented us from taking a disaster relief trip this January and look forward to next year when things hopefully become more like normal.”
Delaney’s classmate Shannon Little ’23 applied because helping others is her passion. The ability to give back is very important to her, and the service trip last year was an eye-opener for her.
“I didn’t realize how much a team of people coming together could help in a week,” she said. “That was definitely the highlight of my year.”
Delaney and Shannon are joined by classmates Taylor Waugerman and Becca Glazer, along with first-year students Carly Ashway and Nadia Mitrovich, both class of ’24. As a group, they are helping envision what this program will grow into, and the many ways it can contribute to the common good.