Learning through Real-World Service

By Jackie Flaum
Photography by Justin Fox Burks

In only a moment, words in a college textbook can leap out, strike hearts and impact lives when Rhodes students volunteer their time and talent in Memphis to feed the hungry or lend moral support to the scared and lonely.

For Spence L. Wilson Service Scholar Huntley Hudgins ’14 it happened mere weeks into her work with the YWCA Abused Women Service program for immigrant women. Hudgins, also a Bonner Scholar who gives 140 hours of service a semester as part of her scholarship, says she thought she was over being shocked by the ways women were abused—until one Hispanic woman detailed her life, her fear, her children’s terror. Hudgins suddenly realized that here was the quintessential reality of what she’d learned in her Gender and Society class at Rhodes.

“It turns out this woman had been in college in Mexico. She was a lawyer in Mexico, met her husband/abuser in school. We discussed things I’d read. We talked about her abuse in context of gender roles,” says Hudgins, a native of Fayetteville, AR. “It challenged my perspective of the women we typically help. It was a testament that the oppression of women transcends race, social class, culture—it’s everywhere and not exclusive to any type of women.”

Hudgins shadows Rhodes alum Emily Sellers ’11, the YWCA program’s bilingual court advocate. They help get orders of protection and other court remedies for abuse victims. They aren’t lawyers, but counselors—what Sellers describes as “active listeners” who understand the system and can show Hispanic women how to navigate it. Sellers, who did volunteer work at places like the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center before graduation, calls service “the most important thing you can do to prepare for the real world … to have some responsibility and have the ability to change something.”

Changing things—the whole world or the entire city or just one person—is an important reason Rhodes students seek out volunteer opportunities, says the Rev. Walter B. Tennyson, college chaplain and director of Rhodes’ Bonner Center for Faith and Service. Whether students are Bonner Scholars, or part of the Kinney Program that engages students in service, or working on a project for a club or fraternity, the deeper they get into volunteerism, the more they get out of it, he says.

For example, he says, look at Souper Contact, the long-running meal program students operate for the homeless at St. John’s United Methodist Church. “Some students come once or twice and chop celery and onions then never come back. Others meet people and form relationships. They begin to care about these folks. Around those tables they hear about the guy who is having an operation and who else is part of his network of care—now they are too.”

Those students who “catch fire” and devote themselves to one community project or another are adding value to their education by synthesizing the classroom experience with issues they care about in the real world, he says.

“I think it is true there is something—a God-sized hole— in people. People are desperate for meaning. They are aware the world they are living in is in crisis,” Tennyson says. Students want to make sense of and repair it “and our office is where they get connected to that world.”

Often, he says, the person who is changed through hands-on service turns out to be the Rhodes student.

The search for meaningful service—or at least his definition of it—led Jeremy Herman ’13, a Bonner Scholar and a Christine Barham Caruthers Service Scholar from Ringgold, GA, down several paths. He served as a MIFA (Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association) handyman, a Crisis Center mentor and an emergency services assistant for the Memphis Chapter of the American Red Cross. But he found none of these stirred his passion.

Today, Herman believes he is closer to finding out what defines “meaningful service” for him. He is working with the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and has discovered a passion for urban advocacy.
“You live in the city; you should care about its neighborhoods,” he says. Herman, who grew up in a small town, is the first person in his family to attend college. Memphis, he says, has opened his eyes. “The city has become a home for me.” 

For some students life in the city is a shock—many of them hadn’t seen real poverty or met anyone who is in great need. Volunteer service is a lesson in reality.

“The world is largely nonwhite and poor. Whatever you’re going to be you need to know how to relate to a wide range of people,” says Tennyson. As he travels around meeting Rhodes alumni, he’s discovered that those with lots of volunteer hours in their college life have one thing in common: “They are savvy. They navigate the world as knowledgeable travelers.”

The knowledge gained from service is part of the reason almost 85% of Rhodes students participate in community service projects. This year Rhodes once again ranked number one on Newsweek’s “Most Service-Oriented” list of schools. And when the White House challenged college campuses to bring Americans from often hostile religious groups together through community service, Rhodes applied and joined about 300 colleges and universities around the country.

One result of that challenge was the fall 9-11 Artistic Board Up in North Memphis. More than 30 Rhodes students from different faiths worked through MIFA to board up vacant buildings on Kney Street. Later the same group will create artwork on the boards to beautify the neighborhood in the hope of cutting down on crime and improving property values. Muslim, Jewish and Christian students came together in common purpose and, as one student said, discovered they were more alike than they thought.

“Service is part of learning, of seeing what other people are like,” says Madeline Patterson ’12, a senior from the affluent Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, IN, and the recipient of the Stanley Joseph and Mertie Willigar Buckman Scholarship. Patterson, who has been involved in several volunteer projects, served an internship in Memphis City Hall and developed the One Memphis plan to connect nonprofits and guide volunteers to areas where they could have a lasting impact.

Among the first things she learned is that “when governments cut back, nonprofits pick up.” By the time her internship ended Patterson realized everyone at City Hall was too busy to carry out the plan she created—so she is doing it herself as a volunteer.

“My mom keeps asking why I’m still working there,” she says with a laugh.

The second thing Patterson learned is that trying to organize volunteerism in Memphis is like trying to herd cats. “Memphis has more nonprofits than any other city its size,” she says, adding, “it became political so fast. Everyone is trying to make a difference, but often it can be their way or the highway.” She managed to navigate around some people’s skepticism to create One Memphis. And that was exactly the kind of real-world experience Patterson was looking for—it was “handed right to me on a silver platter.”

Rhodes students are plugged into every phase of Memphis life, Patterson says. “They are everywhere and they are resources nonprofits use.” Students do research and other jobs the nonprofits just don’t have time or resources to do. She worked with one Rhodes student who researched the feasibility of charging for Memphis trash pickup based on weight of trash (the student’s work concluded it wasn’t a good idea for Memphis). Another helped reconcile various building and other codes that were on the books with those listed on the website—often the codes listed on the web were outdated. Some students interested in green projects work at Shelby Farms (Memphis’ 4,500-acre urban park) and have planted community gardens. Still others work at community development centers where nonprofits have little money to get things done.

“Rhodes students get meaningful experiences,” Patterson confirms.

Happily, they aren’t the only ones who benefit from service. So do the people of Memphis—a fact that draws praise from Memphis City Hall to the White House.

“Rhodes College has been a fantastic partner in this work through its numerous contributions of time and energy to so many worthwhile local charities and civic causes,” says Memphis Mayor AC Wharton. “The administration, faculty and students of Rhodes share my conviction that we will make our great city even greater as more and more people invest in themselves and in each other. I am so grateful for all that they do in our community.” 

The notion of service allowing students to discover what they share with people rather than how they are different becomes a theme echoed by many Rhodes volunteers no matter where they work. And students discover that each person has something valuable to contribute.

“Serving in Memphis, I get a better understanding of humanity—including my own,” says Liz Karolczuk ’14, a Bonner Scholar from outside Chicago who has volunteered for the last year and half in labor and delivery at The MED, the Regional Medical Center, Memphis’ public hospital.

Ashley Newman ’13, a Bonner Scholar from Atlanta who helped raise enough money and donations last year to hand out 2,400 blankets to the homeless through Manna House, a “living room in Midtown for people from the streets,” and the Memphis Family Shelter, added that she learns something from the attitude of those she serves.

“The homeless people I meet at Manna House are so happy. They teach me so much—they give me a real perspective on life,” Newman says.

On the other hand, both young women say, appreciating the different lifestyles in the world does not mean ignoring the needs they see.

For Karolczuk, working at The MED showed her a world different from the one in which she grew up. At The MED she takes information from expectant mothers, holds their hand while they are awaiting delivery and offers a strong shoulder for them to lean on. Most of them, she says, are only teenagers. Often, Karolczuk is the only support these young mothers have at this critical time in their lives.

Karolczuk had volunteered in Centegra Health Center in Woodstock, IL, near her home. She says the differences between her predominantly underprivileged patients in Memphis and those she met at Centegra are striking. She says the young women she now meets lack education—not just about sex and birth and delivery but about life in general. She has learned to be nonjudgmental.

The MED patients “have different lifestyles and environmental factors that they grew up with. Many are coming from broken homes—I can see cycles of family (poverty) situations that they were born into. These women don’t expect to go to college. Their environment doesn’t expect that of them so they don’t expect it of themselves,” she says. Talking to these young patients opened her eyes to a big need.

Newman understands what Karolczuk is talking about when she mentions the need for education. At the Memphis Center for Reproductive Health this year Newman spends her volunteer time as a patient advocate helping the women who come into the center fill out paperwork and feel comfortable. “Women’s health is an interest of mine, actually I’m passionate about it. The center has an incredible nurturing environment—it’s about education and that’s what people lack.”

One of Newman’s jobs at the center involves putting together safe sex packets. Through her volunteer work there and at Jacob’s Ladder Community Development Corp., a nonprofit devoted to community revitalization, Newman says she sees a real need for reproductive health education. “There is a horrible cycle of children raising children,” she says.

Bonner Scholar Kondwani Banda ’13 of Zambia is focusing on education too—he wants to expand the horizons of high school students in Memphis. “They only see Memphis, they don’t see anything else. They don’t see the world beyond,” Banda says. He is working with the Children’s Radio Foundation in South Africa to create audio “letters” from Memphis teens to audio pen pals in Africa. At home, he says, everyone in Africa listens to the radio. He is recruiting Memphis teens from the Rhodes Shasta Central community center north of campus to pair with Rhodes students. They will use Rhodes radio station equipment—and any equipment Banda can get donated from local radio stations—to create audio file “letters” that can be emailed to the Children’s Radio Foundation. There, a young African teenager will hear the letter and respond in an audio file.

Banda is also planning to create radio spots to highlight life in the city using Memphis teens and Rhodes students.

Through the audio exchange and the radio spots, he hopes to engage local youngsters in an international dialogue. “They will see that people face problems similar to their own, and perhaps they will appreciate what they have. Once they hear other people’s stories they will look at their stories and their lives differently.”

“Rhodes students are willing to dig in and get their hands dirty to get things done, to make a difference,” says Newman.

There are some college students who grow up in the world, become cynical and say they can’t make a difference, that any collective effort to improve the world has been a failure, says Tennyson. But this isn’t the view of Rhodes students deeply involved in volunteerism. Their world is different. “There is real change going on in the world and they can be a part of it,” he says.

Patterson takes a more personal view. “Everyone needs help, they just need a different kind of help than I do.”