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Transformation Colliding: Students, Community, and Campus Connections Wayne Meisel Introduction A friend of mine from Chicago retells the story about the first person she met in Kentucky . She introduced herself and said that she was a VISTA. "You're a visitor," the elderly woman replied. "No," my friend responded, worrying that the language barrier was going to be more difficult that she had thought. "No, I am a VISTA, Volunteers In Service To America!" "You're a visitor," the woman said once again. This exchange happened several more times until my friend actually realized that there was no language barrier at all. The elderly woman was indeed saying that she was a visitor. This incident was the first and perhaps the most important training she was to receive during her year-long stay in Kentucky. In her retelling of it and in her conveying its obvious personal impact, it had an impact on me. This region has a legacy of people coming to help. Some like my friend come and go, while others like Marie Cirillo from Woodlawn Community Land Trust and Danny Green from the David School have made their life here and never returned from whence they came. I, too, thought that I was headed down that path. When I retired from being a student activist, I hoped to move to Princeton, West Virginia, and work with Jerry Beasley, the president of Concord College. However, a funny thing happened. I ended up in Princeton all right, but rather than venturing to a new community I found myself returning to Princeton, New Jersey, the place of my childhood, to help launch the Bonner Foundation and eventually the Bonner Scholars Program. Part of me felt cheated. I wanted the VISTA-type experience for all the right and not-so-right reasons. But as I reflected on the words that the old woman shared with my friend, I got to thinking that these communities didn't need me to come down and work there for a year. Rather, the young people of those communities should have the opportunity to lead and serve in their own communities. When I discovered that Mr. Bonner wanted to give money for scholarships, the seed had already been planted to turn VISTA on its head, to create an 35 initiative that identified and supported youthful idealists from the very communities that people like me wanted to come down and help... for a year or two. And so with the help of Jerry Beasley, John Stephenson, the late president of Berea College, and David Sawyer, my great friend and the former director of Students for Appalachia, we designed and implemented the Bonner Scholars Program, an initiative that gave students from this region the recognition, the support and the challenge to be servant leaders in their own communities. By doing this, we hoped to demonstrate both at home and throughout the country that the young people of Appalachia were every bit as talented, committed and idealistic as any group of people in America. For when the idealism of young people is tapped and channeled, it offers talents, ideas, creativity, and impatience that are necessary to address and solve most problems today. Not that young people alone have the answers, but their participation and leadership are a critical piece and an essential ingredient for bringing about positive social change and building healthy communities. This premise is the foundation of the Bonner Scholars Program. There is more to it than that, but if you understand at least this part, you might gain a sense of the passion, the commitments, and the hopes for this program. The Bonner Foundation The Bonner Foundation currently supports 1,600 students attending college. Rather than try to identify these students ourselves and oversee their service activities, the foundation instead has created strong working partnerships with institutions of higher learning that have a common vision for supporting low income students, and a common commitment for being an active and telling presence in their communities. But the decision to partner with colleges was not for mere convenience alone. It was our hope and remains our conviction that, by having a high density of these students in a...


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pp. 35-43
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