The first Bonner Leaders at the College of Charleston will graduate on May 12, 2012. Jessica Branton (sociology), Asriel Childs (accounting), Jacques Johnson (psychology), Kristin Macsherry (psychology), Dayse Garcia (political science) worked together to help form the structure and policies that have brought the College of Charleston Bonner Leader program national recognition and praise from the Bonner Foundation.
Four out of the five graduating students are the first in their family to attend college and several say they would not have stayed at the College of Charleston if it they had not been part of the Bonner Leader program. However all agree that the Bonner program was an essential component of their time here.
“I know that we have committed as much as we possibly could to these students, and they have done the same for the College and the Bonner Leader program,” says Stephanie Visser, director of the Center for Civic Engagement. “We have been so impressed with the support and investment from the College. Aside from their amazing personal achievements, these students should be proud that they helped to create something that is now part of the College’s strategic plan.”
At hundreds of universities across the nation, the Bonner Leaders program offers students four-year scholarships that pair real-life work experiences in local nonprofit organizations with leadership development training that help students transition from volunteers to leaders in their community. All Bonner Leaders perform upwards of 300 hours of community service and leadership development training over the course of each school year in exchange for a stipend in their financial aid package.
The graduating students were part of the first class of Bonner Leaders at the College and they helped to develop the program into one of the most innovative in the nation, one that is consistently recognized as an example for other programs.
Three key aspects set the College’s program apart from others. The first is a commitment to service-based trips, both international and domestic. All Bonners participate in one service trip per year that is generously funded by donors. The second aspect that sets the program apart is the development of an annual theme. All Bonner programming, leadership development, and service travel are based on a theme like “Mission for Nutrition.” Finally, what sets the program apart is a feeling of ownership and creation that is shared by even the newest students. They’ve developed support groups of four to six students that they refer to as “families.”
“What I’ve really seen in our Bonner Leaders is validation that they have something to offer,” Visser explains. “I have seen their self-confidence grow and I see them realize for the first time in their lives that anything is possible and they are prepared to handle whatever challenges come their way.”
One graduating Bonner Leader has gone from a volunteer at Metanoia, where she was a one-on-one mentor student to becoming the assistant director of one of their after school leadership programs. She plans to work for Metanoia while she applies for Teach for America. Another Bonner’s service site was Pet Helpers and upon graduation will be joining their staff with a full-time position.
The College’s Bonner Leader program is highly competitive, with just a five-percent acceptance rate. Each Bonner class is five to seven students.