Learning For A Lifetime

By Laura K. Blanton ′05
Photography by Baxter Buck


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The debilitating Memphis summer heat is trapped within the walls of an elementary school cafeteria. The din of 80 kids slowly escalates into migraine-inducing decibels. Pre-K kids pull each other’s hair because they don’t know any better, and the 17-year-olds seem to have perfected the art of insolence. Congratulations—they’re all yours.

Granted, not all of the 2004 Summer Service Fellows (SSF) were as shocked to find such chaos as Rachel Martsolf ’05 was when she entered Sherwood Elementary school on her first day, but one thing is certain about the SSFs: Their jobs were not all cake and ice cream. With the second year of the program gearing up, it’s time to find out what the fellowships are all about.

Inspired by a previous program that funded student service-work abroad, the SSF program targets service needs in Memphis. The timing was just right for the program to be included in a proposal to the Robert and Ruby Priddy Charitable Trust, whose funding supports the majority of service programs under the umbrella of Rhodes CARES (Center for Academic Research and Education through Service). With funding in place, director of leadership programs Marie Lindquist was in charge of executing the fellowship opportunities in 2004.

The nuts and bolts of the program are simple: 15 students receive a $3,240 stipend, room and board and one week of vacation in exchange for 10 weeks of service to the nonprofit of their choice.

It’s the execution that’s the hard part.

Getting Down to Business

Because self-sufficiency was the name of the game, applicants contacted the organization of their choice to pitch their own idea for an internship. If successful, they then formally submitted their intentions for the summer—including goals, expectations and a written statement from their prospective employer. Changes for the upcoming year include a major revision of this internship selection process.

“I’ve solicited opportunities from nonprofits across Memphis,” Lindquist explained. “That way we can create a directory for students, and they can either apply directly to one of those or continue to create their own program.”

While Service Scholars were the main makeup of last year’s applicants, the program is designed for any student who wants to do service-work but needs funding over the summer for the upcoming academic year. The SSF program satisfies both the wants and the needs of those students.

“It is perfect for those who have strong desires to effect change in their community, yet are preoccupied during the school year with academics and meetings,” Joshua Jeffries ’07 said.

All of the students spent their summer living on campus in East Village—an arrangement that encouraged students to violate the maxim of “Don’t bring your work home with you.” Instead, their living situation was designed to promote an ongoing dialogue of their day-to-day experiences. Lucy Waechter ’05 benefited from living with other SSFs, because on days that her roommates were at a standstill in their projects, they could help her as a counselor for the summer program she started at the Neighborhood Christian Center.

The communal aspect of the program was reinforced by different programming events held each week. Students worked Monday through Thursday and used Friday to regroup as a whole and then meet in small groups based on similar projects. They visited local Memphis sites such as Stax Music Academy and the National Civil Rights Museum in an effort to learn more about the culture of the city as well as simply to…relax.

“Becoming a part of the Memphis community and feeling invested in the city was the best part of the program,” Daniel Webb ’05 said. “It was a blessing to meet and develop relationships with a diverse group of people in many different venues in the city.”

What sets the SSF program apart from other service opportunities at Rhodes is the fact that it’s designed to offer invaluable learning experience in a full-time, paid position.

“I was extremely grateful for the money that the program provided because it allowed me to have the freedom not to worry about spending or living expenses, and instead devote all of my energy to my project,” Leah Walter ’06 said.

Working at a nonprofit for pay, however, confronted students with the disparities between volunteering somewhere and becoming an employee for that organization.

“Students really got a good sense of the challenges that employees at nonprofits face, and exactly how difficult it can be sometimes,” Lindquist said. “Sometimes that meant that they were pushed really hard.”

Those challenges became the catalyst for growth as students juggled their expectations with reality. Part of their learning experience was based on having to respond to things that didn’t pan out the way they had expected.

“I learned a lot about human nature and about how an individual reacts to problems in a certain way,” Rebekah Miller ’05 said.

Lindquist and staff encouraged the fellows to reevaluate their progress continually in light of their expectations and the reality of their situation. Goals were assessed periodically throughout the summer, just to keep the students on track and realistic about their achievements.

“I was amazed at how much the students grew through the experience,” Lindquist said. “They were able to get through the difficult times and instead of closing off, they grew from it, made the most of it and moved to the next level to become stronger people.”

The success of the inaugural year speaks through its numbers: One-third of the participants have continued with their same project or organization during the school year. For others, like Maureen Miller ’05, the experience will shape their future careers. After working full-time for Memphis Regional Planned Parenthood, Maureen now knows that she wants to attend graduate school for a master’s degree in public health. Read on for a more in-depth look at some of their experiences.

Rachel Martsolf ′05

Just the facts: Theatre-Religious Studies bridge major from Morrilton, AR.
Crunching numbers: 80 kids, ages 4-17. Nine weeks, eight hours a day. One unairconditioned elementary school cafeteria. One supervisor-teacher-mentor-adult. You do the math.

All she wants to do is dance: As an experienced dancer and teacher, Rachel signed on with Watoto de Africa to teach dance as a part of its Arts Encounter Summer Experience (AESE). “The program gives at-risk children a framework for success,” she said. “It’s a good way to get the kids to be committed to something, be involved and perform. It gives them something to be proud of.”

More than she bargained for: “It turns out that dancing was the entire component of AESE. All we could do the entire day was dance,” Rachel said. After teaching a two-hour combination, which she would normally teach once a week, she still had five hours left to fill. “You just can’t be effective by going on and on,” she explained. “Everybody’s completely worn out.” With so many kids and such a range of ages and talents, not only could they not hear or see her instructing, but she could not gain control of the group as a whole. “Getting them to be quiet and respectful was the most difficult part of the summer,” she said. “It rarely happened with ease.”

Finding a medium: “At first these kids hated me because they didn’t want to be standing around doing stuff that they didn’t understand,” she confessed. “Meanwhile, I kept telling myself that I couldn’t be unhappy and angry because that would have rubbed off on everybody.” Desperate times call for desperate measures, so Rachel started improvising dance classes of all genres—jazz, hip-hop, swing, ballet, funk and so on—that finally grabbed their attention. “Once they realized that I had things they wanted to learn, it was easier to tell them what to do,” she said. She had to give in, too, and realize that despite their poor behavior, they really did want to be there. Their tug-of-war subsided, and between lunchtime jam sessions and the kids teaching Rachel their dance moves, tensions eased and the summer wasn’t so bad after all.

Things to write home about: “The experience, in general, justified the difficulties of it because I learned that you have to earn your right to be heard,” she said. “Even in a very unideal situation, you have to stick through the rough part and make it into something that everyone can benefit from.”

Sini Nwaobi ′07

Just the facts: Biology-Spanish double major from Brighton, TN

Goal: To complete an overseas medical mission in the Nigerian village of Issele-Mkpitime. Appalling conditions in the village, such as no fresh water and only one nurse and 10 hospital beds for a population of 7,000, triggered Sini to target the typhoid and malaria problems within the community.

Shopping list: She hopes to acquire certain vaccinations, medical equipment and supplies, mosquito nets and a new water supply for the village by building a well. So far, she has secured gloves and dissection trays, and is still hoping for more medical equipment such as an autoclave and a suction machine.

Step by step: Because her project was conceived independently and she didn’t work under any organization, Sini developed her project through countless hours of researching out of her East Village apartment. With the help of physics professor and mentor Brent Hoffmeister, she ferreted out the necessary steps to take in order to realize her goal.

Tapping into resources: Ministry of Health in Nigeria, to have supplies approved; pharmaceutical companies and a physician to secure vaccines and medicines; Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, for guidelines on obtaining medicine and distributing them to another country; grant writing for funds.

Biggest roadblocks: Obtaining medicine, because as she says, “they’re not going to sell it to someone off the street.” The shipping time schedule, money constraints, working on other people’s schedules and a seven-hour time difference with Nigeria are all additional challenges.

Yet to come: Sini is organizing a small group of Rhodes students to accompany her to Nigeria this summer for a three-week trip to help deliver the equipment.

Looking to the future: After attending medical school and, she hopes, specializing in orthopedics and trauma, Sini would ideally work in the U.S. for a time and then work for the U.S. overseas. “It’d be the best of both worlds.”

Joseph Bynum ′07

Just the facts: Biology major from Memphis

Man in charge: Joseph supervised 25 teenagers taking part in the Volunteen program at LeBonheur Children’s Medical Center, managing their daily shifts and placing them in one of seven departments throughout the hospital. Because they ranged from ages 13 to 17, the younger kids became restless during their four-hour shift. One of the hardest parts of Joseph’s job was making sure that the students utilized their time spent at the hospital well and had a great volunteer experience. “It was hard to motivate them,” he said. “If they finished their task, they wouldn’t necessarily pursue another one. I made sure they had something to do.”

Expect the unexpected: “I was able to take over a special project,” Joseph revealed. The hospital provides several medical clinics, which by noon were inevitably packed with as many as 70 patients in the waiting room. To alleviate the congestion and the boredom of the patients, the hospital designed an ambulatory care playroom to funnel patients into, where volunteers could play games with patients in the interim. Joseph was subsequently put in charge. “I was the supervisor and made sure everything went smoothly for the patients waiting to get in,” he said.

The results are in: “There is a huge discrepancy between [my expectations for the summer and the results],” he said. As a pre-med student, Joseph was hoping to shadow neurologists during the summer and get a feel for the medical aspect of the profession. “That was completely tossed out,” he confessed. “Instead, I was working with kids, under the umbrella of the hospital.” But, there was a silver lining.

When it’s all said and done: “I’m glad I was able to do it, it was just a huge shock initially,” he said. “I have learned that I do work well with kids, so maybe I have to put my own interests aside and say, ‘If I can do this, then why not?’”

Sunita Arora ′05

Just the facts: International Studies major from Metairie, LA

Taking the bull by the horns: When volunteering part-time for the Shelby County Division of Corrections, Sunita became concerned about the language barrier between incarcerated Hispanics and the staff members. In an effort to improve their communication, she designed and implemented an English as a Second Language class to teach the male prisoners throughout the summer. Halfway through the program, however, she reached a breaking point because they were treating her so poorly. “I went in idealistically, thinking they’d give me the same respect that they’d give anyone else,” she said. “It wasn’t like that at all.”

Changing it up: Because she still wanted to ameliorate the language barrier, Sunita decided to approach the problem from the inverse—by teaching
Spanish to the Shelby County employees. Her class was successful and continues to be. She currently teaches one hour a week to about 10 employees at a time.

Exploring issues: Along with her Spanish class, Sunita also taught a GED class and a Workforce Readiness class for the female inmates. Immediately more comfortable in the women’s arena, Sunita was able to expand the core curriculum, which taught social, interpersonal and work skills, to encompass philosophical discussions on social contracts. “I really felt like we had an open dialogue about these issues without having to be personal about who we are, yet still get at the things that really matter—the things that need to change in order to correct yourself or rehabilitate yourself,” she said.

A new lease: “[Working there] was a really good chance for me to understand the problem with a society that tries to rehabilitate people,” she explained. “Do prison systems really work? I don’t know if I still think that they do. It became really apparent this summer that you can’t just punish people and expect them to learn from it. You have to educate them as well.”

Liz Roads ′05

Just the facts: English-Greek and Roman studies double major from Clarksville, TN

Dare to dream: Liz worked for the Dream Factory, a nonprofit organization that grants dreams to children with critical or chronic illnesses.

The 3 D’s: Donations, dreams, and doughnuts were all part of Liz’s job last summer. She spent the majority of her time on the organization’s largest fundraiser, a golf tournament held in September. “A lot of what I was doing was calling local businesses and restaurants to solicit donations,” she said. Her hard, albeit tedious, work paid off when the tournament raised almost $25,000. On the side, she organized two sendoff parties for children about to experience their dream of going to Disney World for a week with their families. Finally, she worked to publicize the Dream Factory by getting doughnuts donated and delivering them bimonthly to nurses in local hospitals.

The nitty gritty: “I’m not good at calling people up on the phone without knowing them and asking them for money,” she said. “It was really hard for me to get up every morning and sit at my computer and call people who probably wouldn’t call me back.” By the end though, Liz had learned the tricks of the trade. “At first I would back off instantly if a manager told me no when I called, but now I’m much more persistent. I learned how to keep them on the line and really sell the Dream Factory.”

Back to Reality: Midway through the summer, Liz took a break at Camp Rainbow, a weeklong summer camp for children with serious illnesses. “A lot of them have had dreams granted by the Dream Factory, so I got to see the kids whom I was trying to help by sitting at my desk making phone calls,” she said. “It helped me remember who I was really working for.” Even though her job wasn’t glamorous, she said the people made it worth it for her. “It was a wonderful experience to work with a group of dedicated volunteers who spend a great deal of time working toward a worthy goal: easing the pain of children dealing with serious illnesses.”

What 10 More Scholars Did

  • Christine Coy ’05 developed a manual of services available in Memphis for Habitat for Humanity homeowners.
  • Anna Ivey ’06 worked at Facing History and Ourselves, assisting with seminars for teachers who are incorporating the Facing History message into their classrooms.
  • Joshua Jeffries ’07 served as a summer camp counselor at the Stax Music Academy.
  • Ashley McCallen ’05 tutored students working to pass the TCAP exams (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program) in city schools.
  • Rachel Methvin ’06 worked with neighborhoods in the Vollintine-Evergreen area on projects targeting the polluted areas of Cypress Creek.
  • Maureen Miller ’05 developed training procedures for volunteers at Memphis Regional Planned Parenthood.
  • Rebekah Miller ’05 assisted case managers and clients at the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association’s Estival Place for transitional housing.
  • Lucy Waechter ’05 created programming for children in the Neighborhood Christian Center summer assistance programs.
  • Leah Walter ’06 worked with the Memphis Literacy Council.
  • Daniel Webb ’05 worked in faith-based ministries of the Memphis School of Servant Leadership.