A Civic Mindset: How the Kernodle Center for Civic Life is building for the future

A name change, a new strategic plan and a new director are positioning the Kernodle Center for Civic Life for even greater community partnerships in the future.

Mary Morrison led service efforts at Elon for almost 15 years as director of the Kernodle Center for Civic Life. She retired in May.

Mary Morrison had a hundred thoughts running through her mind, as one typically does during a job interview. At the top of that list was whether a well-established organization like Elon University’s Kernodle Center would be open to change.

“I remember saying in the interview, ‘I’m an architect and a builder, so if you need somebody to maintain, then I’m probably not the person for the job,’ and I think they really liked that,” she says with a laugh.

That was almost 15 years ago when Morrison interviewed for the center’s director position. Since that day in 2006, Morrison has built an organization that mirrors her passion for service-learning and community engagement. She retired in May as director of the center and assistant dean of campus life, having overseen much change and growth in the center and further cemented Elon’s place as a national leader in service-learning. In 2020, the university earned a No. 2 ranking among national universities for service-learning experiences from U.S. News & World Report.

Elon students volunteer with The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club of Alamance County to mentor local students during the pandemic.

At no time was her commitment to service-learning more important than during the 2020-21 academic year. Morrison and the Kernodle Center faced the global COVID-19 pandemic head-on while continuing to advance the organization’s mission to inspire, educate and prepare students to partner with diverse communities and address local and global challenges.

At the forefront of those efforts were Elon students, tasked with helping to lead the organization through a year of uncertainty. That student-centered focus has always been a key piece of Morrison’s service-learning philosophy, beginning with more than two decades of work with 4-H and the APPLES Service Learning program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a result of that philosophy, the Kernodle Center has seen a sharp increase in student participation in Morrison’s tenure, with between 80 and 125 student leaders planning, implementing and evaluating the center’s operations each year.

“My goal is to give young people an opportunity to learn the skills of leadership in service and community engagement,” she says. “I don’t know how to do this work without student leadership. This work has to be by students, for students and with students.”

A nimble approach

With the support of Morrison and other Kernodle Center leaders, Elon students navigated a host of obstacles to carry out the center’s important work during the pandemic. As student leaders began to think of new ways to engage their peers in service, they quickly found that their first step would be to raise awareness of the Kernodle Center itself.

Gillian Kick ’22

“We realized some first-years didn’t know anything about the Kernodle Center — some thought we were the Koenigsberger Learning Center,” says Gillian Kick ’22, lead service ambassador for the Kernodle Center. “We wanted to get our name out there and start talking about issues because people genuinely didn’t know about them.”

Kick heads up a team of other ambassadors who connect student organizations across campus with service opportunities throughout the community. Kick also serves as an executive member of Elon Volunteers!, the student-led service and community engagement organization housed within the center. As part of her work with Elon Volunteers! last year, Kick oversaw a staff of student coordinators who organized projects with community partners like the Center for New North Carolinians, the local Boys & Girls Club and Burlington’s Positive Attitude Youth Center. Each of those partnerships took on new forms in 2020. “We had to make a total reset because everyone needed something different as a result of the pandemic,” she says. “We had to really adapt our programming to best support our community partners.”

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The needs of community partners came in many forms — both big and small. When Burlington Animal Services realized the pets in their shelter were lonely, they reached out to Elon Volunteers! for help. Kick and six Elon students spent a day working in the Moseley Center kitchen to produce handmade toys and treats for the shelter’s animals. This seemingly small gesture was exactly what the shelter needed. “We think a lot about big picture stuff, and I love that we do that, but right now our community partners just need little things,” she says. “What our community needed this year were little things, and we could provide that.”

“The Kernodle Center for Civic Life is ready to take its next bold step to work collaboratively with faculty, staff, students and community partners to inspire, educate and prepare students to directly address societal challenges today while simultaneously working to lead systemic change for a more equitable tomorrow.” —Bob Frigo

As Kick was focused on reshaping the service mindsets of her fellow students, Associate Professor of Communication Design Phillip Motley targeted faculty. Motley recently completed his first year as faculty fellow for service-learning and community engagement, a role that involves helping Elon faculty develop academic service-learning courses and incorporate service-learning into their existing courses.

Motley organizes regular workshops and lunch-and-learn sessions that engage faculty in discussions about service-learning, usually hosting between 20 and 25 people. During the pandemic, however, Motley transitioned the sessions to a virtual format and saw those numbers double. “Now that the workshops are on Zoom, we’ve had 50, 60 attendees come and hear from us, and we’ve been able to open up the invite to the broader Elon community and even some of our community partners,” Motley says. “So there are people showing up who just wouldn’t have been there before.”

Members of the campus community participated in a meal distribution event at the CityGate Dream Center in Burlington, N.C., during one of five Alternative Break experiences in the spring. Photo credit: CityGate Dream Center

That is Motley’s top priority as faculty fellow: to engage new audiences and introduce them to the power of service-learning. It’s work that he’s passionate about because of the impact he’s seen it have on his students. “Service-learning brings out the best in students,” Motley says. “I like it when they stop worrying so much about grades and the academic mechanics of class and instead focus on doing a good job for their community partners. They realize that teamwork in this capacity is different from the types of group work they often are asked to do in a typical class, and in this context they really need their teammates.”

Motley, however, points to a “groundswell” of support for seeing the idea of service-learning expand. He believes there’s room to rethink how the work is framed and discussed, preferring it to be called “community-based learning,” with more of a focus on mutually beneficial experiences for community partners and students, a feeling Morrison shares.

“We see our community partners as co-educators with us,” Morrison says. “So we have faculty in the classroom and we have co-educators in the community, and all
that combines to make a really robust and rich experience
for students.”

A strategic vision

In 2019, the Kernodle Center took a major step in broadening its focus, introducing a seven-year strategic plan to carry the organization into the future. Kernodle Center leaders spent two years developing the plan that they hope will serve as a national model for civic engagement and prepare Elon students and the campus to engage in local and global communities.

Elon Volunteers! promotes service & community engagement by partnering with community organizations.

The plan targets four priorities — Expand, Prepare, Deepen and Engage, and Impact — and focuses on things like expanding community partnerships in Alamance and Guilford counties, developing student leaders through mentorship, and much more. “Really it’s a very ambitious plan,” Morrison says. “We say right up front we want to be a model for the nation, and I think it’s really going to take us quite far and stretch us.”

An immediate change to come out of the strategic-planning process was a new name for the Kernodle Center, signifying its renewed mission. Originally formed as the “Center for Service-Learning” in 1995, the center became the home for a number of existing service programs. Two years later, an endowment gift from the John R. Kernodle Sr. family officially named the center in honor of John Robert Kernodle Jr. Programs and staffing have been added as the university has grown in size and the commitment to service and community engagement continues to deepen. Known as the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement since 2009, the organization is now known as the Kernodle Center for Civic Life. Morrison says the “Service Learning and Community Engagement” title had become too narrow and no longer accurately depicted the full picture of the center’s work on and off campus.

With the emergence of the student-led civic responsibility organization Elon Votes!, which is housed in the center, leaders decided it was time to come up with a more inclusive name. It was a welcome change for Carrie Eaves, who serves as faculty fellow for civic engagement and sees service and civic engagement as one in the same.

As part of its civic engagement efforts, the Kernodle Center for Civic Life has co-sponsored presidential debate watch parties in recent years.

“We want all eligible students to vote and then think about new ways to get involved in their communities,” says Eaves, who also serves as an associate professor of political science and policy studies and co-chairs Elon’s Council on Civic Engagement with Morrison. “For some students it’s activism or protests, and for others it’s volunteering at an animal shelter or an after-school program. All of those are ways that we’re engaging and making our community a better place that we all want to be a part of.”

Eaves has helped lead Elon’s civic engagement efforts for more than two years, organizing panel discussions and other events to engage the campus community in important conversations relating to civic life. Eaves also works closely with Elon Votes! and the group’s adviser, Bob Frigo. Over the past year, Elon Votes! has earned Elon high praise nationwide for the group’s voter registration efforts ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Elon finished the campaign season ranked in TurboVote’s top 10 colleges and universities in total registrations and percentage of registrations among undergraduates. Elon was also named a “Voter Friendly Campus” by Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Elon Votes! has been recognized nationwide for its voter registration efforts ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

That success wasn’t by chance. Student leaders spent all of summer 2020 planning their outreach strategies, turning to virtual events, table sessions and other engaging programs to encourage more than 2,000 Elon students to register to vote. “To put the students out there and watch them grow and flourish was exciting,” Eaves says. “They didn’t take their foot off the gas this year. In fact, they tried to expand. It would have been really easy to say, ‘It’s too hard this year,’ but they kept pushing to do more.”

The success of Elon Votes! further validates Morrison’s philosophy of developing a service-learning model with, by and for students. And as COVID-19 restrictions lessen, Morrison is optimistic about what Elon’s students will do next. “We’re entering an era that I think is going to be transformative,” Morrison says. “I see tremendous possibilities for the future.”

A transformative legacy

During her time at Elon, Morrison has not only championed service-learning. She has also inspired countless students — including Kick, who was immediately drawn to working with the Kernodle Center after meeting Morrison during a Fellows Weekend her senior year of high school. From that moment, Kick says she always knew she wanted more out of her college experience, and Morrison was her inspiration.

Throughout the years, countless students have participated in service trips as part of the Kernodle Center for Civic Life’s programming.

“She’s so loving, and she’s the embodiment of service leadership,” says Kick, who will serve as one of three Elon Volunteers! executive directors as a senior. “And Mary being the embodiment of service leadership is what has made our work so successful. She practices service leadership in any interaction you have with her.”

As she looks back at her role as director of the Kernodle Center, Morrison sees a number of areas that the center can target moving forward. Whether it takes on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, economic development, or health care, she feels the center and the university are poised to make an even greater impact in local and global communities.

The center will continue its mission under Frigo’s leadership, as the former associate director of the Kernodle Center was named director and assistant dean of campus life following Morrison’s retirement. Serving as associate director since 2013, Frigo helped advance the center’s mission in a number of ways. He co-founded Elon Votes! in 2014 with student leader Meredith Berk ’15, helped lead community and civic engagement programs at Elon and assisted with the creation of strategic plans for the Kernodle Center and the Division of Student Life. He is “humbled and honored” to have the opportunity to continue the work Morrison started.

Bob Frigo

“Cultivating informed, engaged and active citizens to shape a truly representative democracy for the 21st century is now more important than ever before,” Frigo says. “The Kernodle Center for Civic Life is ready to take its next bold step to work collaboratively with faculty, staff, students and community partners to inspire, educate and prepare students to directly address societal challenges today while simultaneously working to lead systemic change for a more equitable tomorrow.”

Following more than a decade of service to Elon, Morrison is proud of the hundreds of student leaders she’s partnered with who remain active in their communities to this day. It’s those students who made this work so meaningful to her. She hopes they’ll teach their own families to be passionate about service and that that passion will carry on through generations. “I am so grateful that I have been able to have a career that has been so satisfying, so meaningful and having the privilege of working with hundreds if not thousands of students,” Morrison says. “I think of them like a thousand flowers blooming in the field, and that makes me happy.”