Elon University planning new Freedom Scholars program for local high school students

The innovative program will immerse students from underserved populations in the study of freedom, citizenship and democracy and culminate in an annual symposium for the public showcasing their work.

Elon University is planning a new Freedom Scholars Initiative to support the study of freedom, citizenship and democracy by rising seniors from area high schools. The new initiative seeks to develop young citizen-leaders from underserved populations in the surrounding community through a new residential summer institute and year-long program culminating in a symposium showcasing their research and work.

“So many of our young people recognize the challenges that lay ahead for them and for their offspring — from climate change, healthcare, policing, racial and economic disparity and on down the line — but they don’t always have the resources to put those ideas into action,” said Associate Professor of English Prudence Layne, who is leading the project. “Freedom Scholars would be positioned to put their knowledge and readings about freedom and democracy to practice in a way that impacts their community. They would be paired with an Elon undergraduate mentor, work with faculty and with a civic leader throughout their senior year while implementing their project.”

The new initiative is supported by a $25,000 planning grant from the Teagle Foundation, which focuses on strengthening teaching and learning in the arts and sciences while expanding educational opportunity. The grant is offered under the foundation’s Knowledge for Freedom initiative, which supports programs that invite students to college to study humanity’s deepest questions about leading lives of purpose and civic responsibility.

Under the plan, up to 20 Freedom Scholars would gather on Elon’s campus each year for a two-week seminar during which they would study freedom, citizenship and democracy during sessions taught by Elon faculty while being mentored by Elon undergraduates. Programming would continue throughout the scholars’ senior year of high school, through the college application process and during implementation of their own civic projects. The experience would culminate in the Freedom Scholars Symposium, an event offering them the opportunity to present their year-long civic work to the public and the next incoming cohort of Freedom Scholars.

The faculty team will use the planning grant to solidify the program’s structure, identify materials and campus support, and begin promoting the program within the community. The team will apply for an additional, larger Teagle Foundation grant to launch the program in 2022, according to Layne.

“The program’s mission of creating civic engagement and access to higher-education among area high school students works seamlessly with Elon University’s Boldly Elon strategic plan as we continue to connect and partner with our surrounding communities to transform the future,” said Jean Rattigan-Rohr, vice president for access and success and professor of education.

Promising students selected for the program must come from low-income households, ethnically marginalized groups, or be first-generation college-bound students. The Freedom Scholars Initiative complements summer programs run by the Center for Access and Success, including the residential Elon Academy, which supports Alamance County high schoolers, Rattigan-Rohr said.

“Year after year there are high school students who apply to the Elon Academy but are unable to gain entrance because of the number of students we can effectively support,” Rattigan-Rohr said. “This program gives us an opportunity to engage with some of those students we could not admit to the Elon Academy. Additionally, we typically have 40 to 50 high school students in our ‘It Takes a Village’ Project. In looking at the work they have been undertaking lately, it seems clear that continued focused efforts to build interest in humanistic writing and civic engagement would also be very beneficial for our high school Village students.”

Faculty from the Department of Philosophy, Department of Political Science and Policy Studies, the Department of World Languages and Cultures, and the Department of English would teach during the summer seminar and serve as teacher-scholar-mentors to members of each cohort. The planning team consists of assistant professors of philosophy Ryan Johnson and Lauren Guilmette; Associate Professor of Classical Languages Kristina Meinking; and Assistant Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies Joel Shelton.

“This grant offers an invaluable opportunity to broaden the work to which we at Elon are so committed: teaching, mentoring and encouraging students as they seek paths for meaningful change in local communities,” Meinking said. “As a classicist, I’m particularly excited for the ways in which students can critically engage with ancient texts and ideas in a modern context.”