The first 14 Elon Freedom Scholars completed a two-week summer residential program July 1 focused on the study of democracy, leadership and social action. They will continue working with Elon faculty and undergraduates and community leaders throughout their senior year of high school.
When’s the last time you saw a bunch of 17-year-olds fanning out over Plato?
Winding down two weeks spent studying civic leadership and philosophies around democracy, the first 14 Elon Freedom Scholars visited the nearby Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum. The historic site memorializes Brown, an early national leader for Black education and civil rights, and the Palmer Institute she founded in rural Guilford County.
Glimmering on a bookshelf filled with Brown’s personal collection of classic liberal arts texts shone a copy of Plato’s “Republic.” In the days leading up to the visit, the scholars immersed themselves in the Greek philosopher’s treatise on justice and ordered politics as part of the Freedom Scholars coursework, critiquing his vision, comparing it to modern society and judging it against their own values.
The scholars collectively lost it.
“This was an incredible day. My entire life I will remember all of you seeing her bookshelf and realizing that Plato was on it, that you could pick it up and that you could read it and everything else on that bookshelf and understand it. It was inspiring to see your excitement and curiosity, and it will stay with me,” said Tamara Tweel, Teagle Foundation program director for civic initiatives, at a closing reception for Elon’s first cohort of Freedom Scholars. She joined them Thursday, June 30, on behalf of the foundation, which has awarded grants to Elon University to support the creation and implementation of the innovative Freedom Scholars initiative.
The scholars’ excitement about Plato pales in comparison to their passion for the community projects they will implement over the coming year. They include:
- a program to support and educate local LGBTQIA youth and families;
- art events for marginalized youth and young adults to express themselves, grow their talents and market their work;
- a holistic mentoring program for middle school youth that will connect them with educational opportunities and other services as needed;
- a women’s empowerment series that introduces BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) women and girls to careers in law and explores the complexities of their relationships to the law; and
- a mental health initiative for Latinx youth and families via a partnering agency.
Elon Freedom Scholars is a college access and civic engagement program for high school seniors from underserved communities in the Alamance-Burlington area. Announced in 2020, the program received a $300,000 Knowledge for Freedom grant from The Teagle Foundation last year. The Teagle Foundation works to support and strengthen liberal arts education in the service of effective citizenship and crafting meaningful lives. Its Knowledge for Freedom programs invite underserved high school students to study and engage with literature and philosophies that raise deep questions about leading lives of purpose and civic responsibility.
Elon Freedom Scholars includes the two-week summer residential program just completed by the first cohort and an additional year of mentoring by career mentors and area leaders to realize civic projects in their communities. Scholars will present their projects to incoming scholars and other community members next summer at the Elon Freedom Scholars Symposium.
The Teagle Foundation and university support for the program makes it free for scholars and families, covering tuition, room and board, food, materials — including an iPad for each scholar — and includes an $800 stipend to further defray costs associated with attendance. Elon Freedom Scholars was envisioned and developed by Associate Professor of English Prudence Layne, who serves as program director. Assistant Professor of Philosophy Lauren Guilmette and Assistant Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies Joel Shelton, guided the scholars and undergraduate mentors through philosophy and political science courses.
“This program has allowed us to gain a team of mentors and support that we all wished we had growing up,” said Williams High School senior Tayloir Wiley. “We made strong connections because of our differences. We are all members of marginalized communities, whether because we’re people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community or even religious association, but we have found common ground in that there needs to be more representation and support for all types of people.”
Scholars arrived at Elon on Juneteenth already passionate about making change in areas of education, equity in access to resources and advancements in support for women and marginalized communities. They left July 1 with action plans and direct connections to organizations and agencies that will assist them.
“The residential program is just the start,” Layne said at the June 30 reception. “The real work of changing our community and the fight for social justice is just beginning. Yes, you have year-long projects you will present at the symposium to next summer’s incoming class, but after that, these are your passion projects. You have made lifelong commitments to the work you are deeply invested in. I want you to retain that power, that passion and that drive.”
Initially, scholars wanted to create a one-stop center that would serve multiple purposes and youth communities. “But we’re only teenagers and we only have one year,” Arden Richardson, a Williams High School senior, reminded them.
“It’s OK to start small. Think of it as planting seeds that will grow,” Layne urged.
By their second week, they aligned the scope of their visions with the realities of limited time and resources.
Huddled over their iPads during a final planning session with Layne, they plotted their goals and outcomes, furiously clicking, scrolling and collecting sobering statistics and outlining ways their projects would change them. Layne floated among them spurring their ideas, inviting them to explore gaps in existing services and programs and consider ways to bring resources directly into targeted communities.
“You can take as a given that Elon is behind you,” Layne said. “We support you and your ideas but think also about the constellation of mentors you’ve identified. Who are your partners and allies in this work?”
Scholars completed two courses for college credit this summer.
Layne taught LED 2100A: Foundations of Leadership, guiding scholars through methods of grassroots civic action and social change. In a closing exercise, students responded to the prompt, “How should we lead?” Among their answers: “with integrity,” “with humility,” “be open-minded,” “together” and “with purpose.”
Guilmette led PHL 1120A: How Should We Live?, which is where they encountered Plato and analyzed aspects of U.S. democracy and justice through his and contemporary writings. They synthesized their learning in final creative projects, many heavily influenced by a Belk Library session on the historical and community-building aspect of zines — nonprofessional, freeform, often underground publications for niche audiences — with Archivist and Assistant Librarian Libby Coyner. Additional sessions included resumé building workshops with the Student Professional Development Center, and CPR and first aid certification courses led by Assistant Director of Campus Recreation and Wellness Evan Small.
Alongside the scholars, Elon undergraduate mentors completed POL 3920 C: Classic Citizenship for Contemporary Challenges with Shelton and Guilmette. Mentors pre-read “Republic” and related readings and spent afternoons guiding scholars through the dense ideas and planning projects.
Scholar Halli Nguyen of Williams High School said the program made her feel more confident in creating change. She and her team will develop Project Prism for queer youth this year. “I feel like I’ve been part of something really special,” Nguyen said. “I love how much this forced me to think critically and to ask questions and be diverse in mind and thought. This gave me a team of people I can ask for help and come to with questions.”
Jakayla Simmons, also a Williams High senior, is part of the team launching Infinity Mentoring focused on middle-school youth. The program catalyzed her personal experiences and observations of youth whom adults give up on into pathways of action. “I’d always had opinions and thoughts, but I never thought I could actually do something to change things,” Simmons said. “Now I know I can, and that there are people here who will help me make my vision come alive.”
The 2023 Freedom Scholars program is open to ABSS students beginning their junior year of high school in fall 2022. In addition to the complete online application (available in spring 2023), applicants will need to submit a letter of recommendation and a copy of their high school transcript.