'Vision in Action' fellowships cultivate student ideas for social change

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | March 19, 2015

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Erika Oliver, a 2013-2014 VIA Fellow, founded an Emory chapter of Building Tomorrow, an organization that mobilizes communities to help build schools in Africa. Oliver coordinated fundraisers to finance the construction of schools in rural Uganda, like the one being built in this photo.

When Brian Fuller found his way to Emory lecturer Christine Ristaino’s office three years ago, he didn’t need help pinpointing his goals.

Fuller, 13C, had already defined his dream: Create a curriculum for middle school and high school students based upon self-awareness, self-efficacy and self-esteem.

What he needed was the time to develop it and a little guidance, “an avenue to follow my passion, to actualize my vision,” he recalls. “It had always been in the back of my mind, but I didn’t know what to do with it.”

As it happened, Ristaino, who teaches Italian, shared an interest in educational reform and was offering a class on the Reggio Emilia approach to learning, an educational philosophy developed in Italy after World War II.

Together, they agreed to partner for an intensive year of independent study, researching self-esteem and its affects on behavior and academics in children with the goal of helping Fuller create the curriculum “that was just sitting inside of him,” Ristaino recalls.

Today, Fuller is the Philadelphia program director for The Dream Program, an agency that builds mentoring partnerships between college students and children in low-income housing developments.

That curriculum he developed while at Emory? He’s already used elements of it in his current job and is now in talks about piloting it with other organizations in New York and Philadelphia.

“I’m so grateful to Christine for giving me that opportunity — I had this vision, and she helped make it happen,” he says. “The experience of being able to take something I was passionate about and create something from it was invaluable, one of the best I had at Emory.”

Incubator for social change

Three years later, what began as a partnership to help germinate one student’s dream has grown into Vision in Action (VIA), a for-credit, year-long program that pairs Emory students who have a vision for social change with faculty experts who can help them realize those ideas, from start to finish.

Offered through Emory’s Office of Student Leadership and Service (OSLS), students who are accepted into the program as VIA Fellows begin meeting weekly for independent study with an assigned faculty member throughout the fall semester, says Ristaino, who co-directs the program with Lisa Kendall, interim director for community engagement for the OSLS.

“They start by figuring out the academic side to their project, developing a syllabus together, researching their topic and creating a project that meets their interests,” explains Ristaino.

During spring semester, students receive funding — between $250 and $750 — to put proposals into action. Students also meet as a cohort to discuss shared experiences.  “As a group, each fellow supports one another to reach new heights, and in the process, realizes the journey is just as important,” Kendall says.

In order to apply, VIA Fellows must have either already participated in The LeaderShape Institute — a week-long, intensive leadership development program offered through OSLS that allows 60 Emory students to help create a vision for a more just, caring and thriving world and learn leadership skills to help facilitate that vision — or they must sign up to take it during the spring semester they are enrolled in the program.

After LeaderShape, students may then apply to Vision in Action for additional faculty mentorship and course credits while working toward implementing their vision, says Matt Garrett, interim senior director of the Center for Student Leadership and Community Engagement.

“We really see this as a model program for meaningful student engagement in our Emory and broader communities to make a difference,” he says. “Students get to apply what they learn inside the classroom and from the mentorship of a faculty member to some vision for making the world a better place to live.”

The application deadline for Fall 2015 VIA Fellows is Saturday, April 4.

Following where passions lead

Part of the joy of working with the VIA Fellows has been the chance to see where their ideas will lead, Ristaino says.

“It’s been really inspirational,” she says. “Students have so many great ideas, but often without formal structure they just put them on a back burner. (The VIA program) allows them to make it a part of their academic experience.”

Last year, student projects inspired the creation of “The Good Life” speaker series, offered through Flourish Emory; an educational and support program for teen mothers, now being adopted by a Florida high school; and a campus fundraiser that was used to help construct classrooms in rural Uganda.

“I was drawn to Vision in Action because I liked the idea that we could implement a vision of our choice, with the help of faculty and some financial backing,” says Erika Oliver, a 2013-2014 VIA Fellow who founded an Emory chapter of Building Tomorrow, an organization that mobilizes communities to help build schools in Africa.

Working with Sam Cherribi, a senior lecturer in sociology who researches development issues in low-income countries, Oliver coordinated on-campus events that raised more than $6,700 to construct classrooms in the small village of Kisaluwoko, Uganda, among others.

This year, continued fundraising has seen total donations climb to more than $11,000, reports Oliver, a senior majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology, who will begin medical school this fall.

“I’d had leadership experiences before, but never something where everything was on your own shoulders,” Oliver says. “But it provided the perfect balance that I needed, an outlet for something that I was really passionate about, and ultimately an experience that was very rewarding and fulfilling.”

Rewarding for faculty, students

This year’s VIA Fellows have already yielded impressive results, Ristaino says.

Last month, the VIA program helped launch the debut of “Black at Emory University: Activism in a ‘Post-Racial’ Society,” a student-organized conference intended to offer a continuation of Emory’s “blacktivism” movement, which drew about 70 participants.

The idea for the conference came from Casidy Campbell, a 2014-2015 VIA Fellow who spent this academic year developing the idea for the gathering, which had support from OSLS and Emory’s Black Student Alliance.

Campbell was paired with faculty mentor Nagueyalti Warren, professor of pedagogy in the Department of African American Studies. “From a faculty perspective, it was a wonderful experience,” Warren says.

“It was amazing to watch — she organized everything, got committees going, supervised them, and stayed on task. A lot of her readings were about how to motivate people to get involved. We also examined the idea of critical race theory and how that impacted students on campus.”

Projects arise from unexpected moments and places. Shanice Kellman, a junior majoring in sociology and media studies, was inspired to apply for a 2014-2015 VIA Fellowship after observing her 6-year-old cousin playing with dolls.

“I kept hearing her say that her black doll wasn’t pretty,” Kellman recalls. “If she didn’t think her black doll was pretty, how did she feel about herself?”

The child’s words weighed on her. “As a black woman, the one-dimensional images we see in the media are always something I’ve been cognizant of and wanted to address,” she says. “Going into my project, I knew I wanted to do something to support a more diverse definition of beauty.”

Through VIA, she’s had the chance to do just that, working with Carlton Mackey, director of Emory’s Ethics and the Arts program, adjunct professor of African American studies, and curator of the multi-media project, “Beautiful in Every Shade” — an experience made richer by readings that have deepened her understanding of class, race and media.

“It couldn’t have been more perfect,” she says. “I had no confidence going into this and he offered me an emotional foundation.”

This spring, Kellman is preparing to launch her “Beautiful Flaws” campaign, a week-long multi-media event that emphasizes that “beauty can come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes.”

“My project is coming to life right now,” she says. “It’s been an amazing year.”