Honors course prompts hands-on community engagement
December 19, 2017

Not many first-year college students would eagerly attend a local school board meeting – especially not one that lasts more than five hours. But Jack Wilson, a political science major from Mechanicsville, Virginia, recently did just that.

“He told me that his interest in education and Richmond Public Schools is a direct result of his work with the community this semester,” said Amanda Hall, assistant director of service learning in VCU’s Division of Community Engagement (DCE), and Jack’s instructor for Honors 160: Introduction to Community Engagement. The required course, developed by the Honors College in partnership with the Division of Community Engagement, guides entering freshmen to consider their roles in society and serves as a foundation for the contributions they will make as Honors students and as citizens.

“Our Honors community comprises students who have the capacity to do exceptionally well, but perhaps more importantly, every Honors student has the capacity to do good,” noted Jacqueline Smith-Mason, associate dean and director of academic affairs for the Honors College. “Through this course, our students use an interdisciplinary approach to analyze and actively engage in principles and practices of community engagement through a local lens."  

While the course asks students to demonstrate participation in at least five off-campus activities, Jack honed in on one: Carver Promise, which provides weekly mentoring and educational support for 350 low-income students at G.W. Carver Elementary School not far from VCU's Monroe Park campus. VCU has worked in partnership with the nearby school since 1996 – before the current first-year students were born. Carver was named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education for its exceptional Virginia Standards of Learning performance. Jack has learned that “elementary education is extremely important in creating a better future for students; however, in Richmond's case, not all kids have access to quality resources to flourish during their elementary years.”

Amanda Hall and Jack Wilson

Jack mentors "D," whom he calls “an insanely bright boy, with a great future – if he had the proper resources.” In fact, Jack’s devotion to D and his school prompted him to organize a supply drive in the hope of reducing the future dropout potential of “these brilliant peanuts.” Jack’s efforts on Carver’s behalf raised more than $500 in a matter of weeks. He purchased items of need in bulk from Amazon with the funds.

“When I shared with Jack that the VCU Police Department was collecting stocking stuffers for Carver,” Hall said, “he was excited to take his remaining funds and purchase items for the stockings!” (PHOTO: Hall and Wilson, above)

Jack is one of many students making meaningful community connections.

Honors student Christine Huynh’s five-hour tour of five Richmond arts spaces, offered in collaboration with VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art, showed her “how people can use art to bring awareness to different social issues,” she said. As a result, and as vice president of the newly-founded Photography Club, she helped to organize a volunteer event where club photographers made images for Lobs and Lessons, a program of the DCE’s Mary and Frances Youth Center that provides life lessons and tennis practice for underserved children.

Reflecting on her Honors 160 experience, Christine noted, “I’ve learned about ways that are available to help. Engagement means working toward real change through sustained involvement, not just one-time volunteering.” A student in Dr. Hollee Freeman’s section of the course, Christine ended the semester with a van tour through Richmond’s Northside neighborhood, an area rich in history yet burdened by economic disparity.

Freeman, executive director of Richmond’s MathScience Innovation Center, invited Partnership for Families executive director Veronica Fleming to serve as a guide for the Northside tour; her organization provided the van. Fleming showed the students the Gilpin Court subsidized housing community, where 78 percent of the 2,900 residents live below the poverty line with a median annual income of $9,300, as well as the Cannon Creek Greenway, a reclaimed trash dump that now offers cycling and walking trails. They saw new revitalization projects like the Six Points Innovation Center and the conversion of the former Highland Park High School into senior residences.

As the students stood overlooking Battery Park, co-instructor Tyren Frazier, Richmond executive director of Higher Achievement, reminded them, “You have a narrative for our community. Now it is up to you to continue your engagement.”

NOTE: The entire Honors 160: Introduction to Community Engagement course is now available online as an open access curriculum for use by both university and high school faculty.