W&L’s Bonner Program Celebrates 20th Anniversary Alumni and friends of the Bonner Program are invited to a reception in Mattingly House during Young Alumni Weekend.
“Some of the most rewarding experiences and privileges I have been given at W&L so far have been afforded through the community connections, service opportunities and support network I have been provided through the Bonner Program.”
~ Kristina Ayers ’25
Bonner Scholars past and present will come together next weekend to celebrate two decades of the program at Washington and Lee.
On Oct. 28, a reception will be held in Mattingly House from 4-5:30 p.m. to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of W&L’s Bonner Program. Robert Hackett, president of the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation, and Howard Pickett, director of the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability, will give remarks after an introduction from Bonner Program director Marisa Charley.
W&L is one of nearly 70 colleges and universities within the national Bonner Foundation network. The W&L chapter is offered through The Shepherd Program, which began in 1997 and focuses on the various causes and consequences of poverty, as well as the collective responsibility to address the problems associated with poverty.
“Our Bonner Scholars are an inspiring yet humble bunch, who work tirelessly alongside community partners to break down the walls that too often exist between campus and community,” said Pickett. “Through their community engagement, coursework and compassion, Bonners embody the Shepherd mission to understand and address the causes and consequences of poverty and inequality in ways that respect the dignity of every person.”
Bonner Scholars are expected to participate in the Bonner Program all four years at W&L. The experience includes completing 1,800 hours of service and leadership training, typically comprised of 280 hours during each academic year and two summers of full-time service. This model challenges and supports each Bonner Scholar to develop skills, knowledge and a sense of responsibility throughout their college experience. Bonner Scholars participate in activities including orientation, first-year service trips and a sophomore service exchange, and they are expected to complete a senior service capstone prior to graduation. There are currently 50 undergraduate students participating in the program.
“The Bonner Program offers the unique structure of facilitating engagement with both elements across a four-year developmental model,” said Marisa Charley, Bonner Program director and associate director of the Shepherd Program. “An instant sense of community for students from the moment they arrive on campus can be a really empowering thing, and these students hit the ground running to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible, personally and professionally.”
Current Bonner Scholar Kristina Ayers ’25 said the program has come to define her time at W&L.
“Some of the most rewarding experiences and privileges I have been given at W&L so far have been afforded through the community connections, service opportunities and support network I have been provided through the Bonner Program,” said Ayers. “By being a Bonner Scholar, my educational purpose has been entirely transformed into immediate action. This allows me to pay it forward to this vibrant community, one which I am so fortunate to be part of.”
W&L Professor Emeritus Harlan Beckley was instrumental in bringing the Bonner Program to campus during his tenure as the founding director of the Shepherd Program, a role he held from 1997 to 2013. Beckley said the Bonner Program has been strengthened by the leadership of its students, and that the benefit to the student experience extends to life beyond graduation.
“The whole idea is to try to integrate these studies, experiences and engagement into their educational trajectory, whatever major or professional trajectory they may have,” said Beckley.
“Harlan’s deep commitment to poverty and inequality studies is unwavering, and his belief that the Bonner Program could be a positive and impactful part of that work remains at the program’s foundation,” said Charley. “Maintaining that rich academic component is certainly one of the elements that enriches W&L’s program and makes it unique within the national network.”
Bonner alumnus Lainey Johnson ’16 said her Bonner experience helped mold her career choices toward community impact. After graduating from W&L, Johnson worked in the nonprofit field for four years before obtaining a master’s degree in social work from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She credits not only the program itself for helping her find her calling, but the mentorship she received, most notably from Charley.
“Marisa provided a foundation of kindness, love and support throughout my time in the Bonner Program and at W&L in general,” Johnson said. “She radiates positivity, warmth and generosity, while also being a fierce advocate for social justice, on campus and off. Marisa was not only a mentor and leader within the program, but is still someone whose wisdom and guidance I cherish.”
Pickett cites working with Charley, as well as Shepherd Program associate director Fran Elrod, as one of the most rewarding aspects of his work.
“The passion, compassion and insight they, along with Jenny Davidson, assistant director of the Shepherd Program, and Campus Kitchen coordinator Ryan Brink, bring to the education of our students and collaboration with our community are invaluable to the Shepherd Program and W&L,” Pickett said. “I feel unbelievably lucky to work with them and the rest of the Shepherd faculty. And I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to continue to learn from and carry on the work started by Harlan Beckley.”
Robert Hackett — who joined the Bonner Foundation in 1992 as vice president and director of the Bonner Scholars Program and assumed the role of president in July 2010 — worked with Beckley throughout the process of founding W&L’s chapter. Hackett cited W&L as a great example of how the program can help students develop holistically.
“Bonner Scholars have a common mission or what we call common commitments,” Hackett said. “Their diversity is a strength, but their common commitments bind them. They support each other in ways well beyond their community work and that leads them to thrive in college as a result.”
Johnson said the sense of community she found within the program is what she would impress upon incoming Bonner students.
“The days and weeks may feel long, but you are surrounded by a community that will continue to fill you up if you allow it,” she said.
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