Trouble the Waters: Freedom Scholars Symposium celebrates achievements of inaugural cohort

Twelve ABSS high school graduates were recognized during the symposium on Sunday, June 11.

Judge Larry D. Brown Jr. during the inaugural Freedom Scholars Symposium on June 11, 2023.

With sweat on his brow, Judge Larry D. Brown Jr. marched through the crowd in McKinnon Hall on Sunday, June 11, during the inaugural Freedom Scholars Symposium and passionately imparted to students the sentiment of “freedom is not free.”

There was once a time in this country when women and minorities were denied voting rights, when segregation was legally enforced. Even today, the skepticism in the judicial system and due process among the current generation is unbridled. But it is the sacrifice of many who decided to “troubled the waters,” putting aside personal welfare, that have corrected these societal ills.

“If you don’t trouble the water, the water will begin to get stagnant. These were laws until somebody stood up for what the believed was right. They didn’t stand there and wait for somebody else to fix the problem. They were Freedom Scholars,” Brown said.

A Freedom Scholar minging with a fellow member of her cohort.

Twelve Alamance-Burlington School System high school seniors from the 2023 Freedom Scholar cohort were celebrated at the inaugural Freedom Scholars Symposium for their completion of the program and were joined by the 16 students in the 2024 cohort. The symposium offered peers, family members, community members, teachers and mentors an opportunity to share in the success and growth of knowledge the scholars have experienced throughout the academic year, which included work on service projects designed to address challenges facing their own communities.

Under the theme of “Chasing Freedom,” Brown, who has been the Alamance County District Court Judge since 2017, urged the scholars to think about what they would be willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the world. “You are the next doctors, the next lawyers, the next business owners. What are you going to do to right this ship? You have to challenge what’s wrong and make it right,” Brown said.

The Elon Freedom Scholars is one of the university’s college access and success programs that was announced in 2021 and launched in 2022. Partnering with The Teagle Foundation’s “Knowledge for Freedom” initiative, the program supports local high school students from underserved populations who desire to attend college and “be difference makers in their communities.” The Elon Freedom Scholars program received a planning grant for $25,000 in 2021 and an implementation grant for $300,000 in 2022 from The Teagle Foundation.

Director of the Freedom Scholars Prudence Layne during the inaugural Freedom Scholars Symposium.

Associate Professor of English Prudence Layne is the director of the Elon Freedom Scholars program, which welcomed its inaugural cohort last summer with a two-week residency. As the students took two college courses, gained certification and engaged in co-curricular activities, they also grew in more ways than they thought possible before starting.

“This is a dream … that has manifested itself by your presence here this morning,” Layne said. “We’re so excited to share the work that they have done towards realizing their college dreams. I’ve said that we were hurting young leaders. But they came in as leaders to this program.”

The symposium featured an art exhibition and award ceremony as well as four sessions presented by the Freedom Scholars on the work they completed during the year.

One session titled “Ignite Creativity” discussed the importance of expressionistic freedom for youth artists in Alamance County.

Gabe Allred, at podium, with his Ignite Creativity group during their session presentation.

“Art stimulates our senses, ignites our imaginations and encourages us to see the world through a different lens,” said Gabe Allred, a graduate of Cummings High School and aspiring physician. “Integrating art into our lives is an act of self-expression, authenticity and that allows us to tap into our innermost thoughts, emotions and experiences.”

The Teagle Foundation is a philanthropic organization focused on supporting and strengthening liberal arts education, which it sees as fundamental to meaningful work, effective citizenship and a fulfilling life. The foundation seeks to be a catalyst for the improvement of teaching and learning in the arts and sciences while addressing issues of financial sustainability and accountability in higher education.

Freedom Scholars taking in the art exhibit that was a part of the inaugural symposium.

“The foundation is committed to the principle that liberal education entails open-minded engagement with the most challenging ideas of past and present, and that the opportunity for such an education must not be restricted to the privileged few,” the mission of the Teagle Foundation states.

Andrew Delbanco, president of the Teagle Foundation, said the Freedom Scholars initiative represents the very best efforts of the students. He reminded them that while having completed the program is a personally significant achievement, it means just as much to larger community and the future of our collective society.

“[This program] means that the university is making an investment in the most precious resource we have in this or any other country. That is an investment in young people with hope and talent and determination and focus on our collective future. Nothing is more important than that,” Delbanco said.