30 Years of Learning Through Service

Oberlin’s Bonner Scholars Program honors a milestone anniversary with events recognizing community partners and the work of current scholars.

April 18, 2023

Amanda Nagy

Bonner Scholars pose as a group underneath a giant hand sculpture.
The Class of 2026 Bonner Scholars visit University Circle in Cleveland as part of their Bonner First-Year Trip.
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Bonner Center

Oberlin’s Bonner Center for Community-Engaged Learning, Teaching, and Research was founded in 1998 under the umbrella of the national Bonner Foundation. It followed the creation, five years earlier, of the Bonner Scholars Program, which guides the experiential learning of participating students through community-service scholarships.

This spring, Oberlin celebrates the 30th anniversary of the milestone program with a series of events for Bonner Scholars past and present, as well as a public exhibition on the program’s history and impact, on display on the main level of Mudd Center during Commencement weekend

With 75 member schools nationwide, the Bonner Program stands apart from other national scholarships because it doesn’t stop at rewarding students' past service—it challenges and supports students to continue that service throughout college. ​​Today, it is the largest privately funded, service-based college scholarship program in the country, providing access to high-need and underrepresented students. Each year, Oberlin’s program welcomes 15 new scholars—about 60 current students at any given time. 

Brittnei Sherrod ’11, director of Oberlin’s Bonner Scholars program and a Bonner alum—is guided by the foundation’s motto: “access to education, opportunity to serve.”

“Often when prospective students consider applying to the program, they question if their past experiences with service is enough,” Sherrod says. “I truly believe the program is for everyone. Anyone can have a strong commitment to service and connect with a community if they are given the time, resources, support, and knowledge. Even if a prospective student has not engaged in service, through the Bonner Program they will." 

Students in front of a sign that reads "Cuyahoga Valley National Park."
Bonner first-years at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Bonner Scholars is the flagship program of the Bonner Center, which emphasizes community-engagement opportunities for all students. Bonner’s Community Engagement Institute (formerly Day of Service), held annually during new-student orientation, connects first-year students with nonprofit and public-sector organizations in Oberlin and the surrounding region.

In recent years, the Bonner Center’s impact has grown through partnerships with organizations throughout Lorain County, community-based learning and research initiatives, and education programs in the Bonner Center.  

Donna Russell, past director of Oberlin’s Bonner Scholars from 2004 to 2010, has seen the program expand in scope and reach throughout the years, although its core principles remain unchanged.

“The six Bonner Common Commitments—civic engagement, social justice, diversity, international perspective, spiritual exploration, and community building—have been the foundation of the Bonner Life 101 class for first-year scholars, as well as reflection activities and meetings,” says Russell, who is now an assistant dean for student support. 

Students assembling packages.
Bonner first-years participating in service-learning at Medwish in Cleveland.

Sherrod’s time as a Bonner Scholar helped shape her approach to balancing professional and personal life. She spent her four years working for the Oberlin Heritage Center, beginning as a docent, then as a researcher, and finally designing docent programming for teenagers. 

“The opportunity to work in the community fostered an appreciation for nonprofits and a belief in taking an active role in the community I live in. Since becoming a Bonner Scholar in 2007, I have served as board member of The Bridge, Oberlin Heritage Center, and the Bill Long Foundation.

“My favorite memories as a scholar and director are from bonding with fellow Bonners,” Sherrod says. “Whether on campus during an All-Bonner meeting to reflect on our experiences, sitting around a table at Cuyahoga Valley National Park to enjoy a meal cooked by fellow Bonners, or on another campus with Bonner Scholars from other schools, Bonner love builds strong bonds based on passion, hard work, and honesty. I feel fortunate to have experienced it both as a student and professional.”

In recognition of Bonner’s milestone anniversary, some campus events in April and May are geared toward current scholars and community partners. Bonner alumni and the public are welcome to attend an open house during Commencement weekend.  

Now in her second year as Bonner Scholars director, Sherrod says she is honored to recognize the program’s 30th anniversary at Oberlin. 

“Oberlin’s commitment to learning and labor is not just a historic mantra or confined to the circle around our logo. It is alive. It is practiced every day by the scholars enrolled and the 400 Bonners who have graduated from our program.” 

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