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VOL. 127 | NO. 79 | Monday, April 23, 2012

Called to Serve

Rhodes students recognized for giving back to community

By Bill Dries

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It’s hard to spot changes on the Midtown campus of Rhodes College.

The Paul Barret Jr. Library is one of the centerpieces of Rhodes College’s Midtown campus. For the past two years, Rhodes has been selected as the most service-oriented college in the U.S. by Newsweek magazine. More than 80 percent of Rhodes students are involved in community service projects throughout Memphis. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

The campus’ landscape is thick with old and massive trees in a part of town known for its impressive canopy of trees. And the difference between new and older buildings on the campus is intentionally hard to tell because the Gothic stone structures are built with rocks from the same quarry in the same style.

In the last 20 years, Rhodes has added 11 new buildings, courts and lanes to a campus that already included 13 buildings and two gateways on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the early 1990s Rhodes added a fence around its perimeter, and at times, some on the campus have said the school connected to the Presbyterian Church tended to cling to its relative anonymity and exclusivity.

That has changed under the leadership of Dr. William E. Troutt, president of Rhodes since 1999. The school has adopted a slogan of “liberal arts in the real world” that comes with an evolution of student service programs linking them to the classroom and the community outside the college gates.

For a second year, Rhodes has been rated as the most service-oriented college in the U.S. by Newsweek magazine, a designation with specific criteria.

“Student service has a long tradition at the college,” Troutt said. “What we’ve been trying to do is build on that tradition. Build on that strength. This has been in the Rhodes DNA for a long time.”

Troutt came to Memphis from the presidency of Nashville’s Belmont College one year after Rhodes marked its 150th anniversary.

“I spent the first year really just trying to listen to what’s in the hearts of people here,” he said.

Troutt encountered lots of fond memories of the old Dilemma series that was for years the college’s highest profile form of outreach.

He points out that the gathering of several days of speakers on the chosen topic was a lot easier to organize in the 1970s when a sought after speaker came at a top end price of $500 in many cases.

Troutt was also searching for an identity that spoke to something that happened on a daily basis and was a more integral part of the school’s identity.

He took note of the small classes that mean more direct communication with the faculty and Rhodes’ uniqueness as a residential campus in a city where the college experience is dominated by commuter students.

He saw something else in the college’s past and present in his first year on campus. Rhodes has a history of lots of students who joined the Peace Corps starting with the program’s inception in 1961.

Rhodes has nearly 100 alumni who have served in the Peace Corps and it ranks 15th among 250 colleges and universities in the southeast for producing Peace Corps volunteers.

That and other service programs have been a long-standing tradition at Rhodes before they were called that and when the college was known as Southwestern at Memphis.

The Kinney Program that includes one-time service events and ongoing volunteer commitments by 83 percent of the college’s graduates began in the 1950s and was developed by Dr. Laurence F. Kinney, professor of Biblical Studies at the college. The Kinney Program remains an integral part of life on campus and beyond.

“We began to think about how could you best connect student service to classroom learning,” Troutt said of what he wanted to develop from that foundation. “Then, how could you build the most meaningful relationships, community partnerships to make students service a win-win, certainly important to helping develop the student but also to help the community?”

Troutt began seeking out and talking with leaders of institutions Rhodes students had a history of working with, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“We had some Rhodes students work at St. Jude in sort of an ad hoc way. They might apply for a summer job or somehow get connected with St. Jude,” said Dr. Bill Evans, the hospital’s director and CEO. “I think almost everyone had had a great experience with Rhodes students. We knew they were bright and motivated kids.”

The St. Jude Summer Plus program launched 10 years ago and the work with scientists begins with a summer learning lab. That becomes two afternoons a week during the fall and spring with the students returning the next summer. It is a rarity for a liberal arts college, even one like Rhodes with a high number of students who go on to seek graduate degrees.

Troutt said the Rhodes students were more up for the classroom connection than he originally anticipated.

“There was a belief that we need to reserve the opportunities for upperclassmen so they will be ready for them,” he said. “We find now that a majority of these students start in their first year.”

Evans is quick to add that the Rhodes students are collaborators in research, contributing questions and suggesting answers in the lab groups alongside those leading the research.

“These are smart kids. They work very hard and they think. They are not just a pair of hands. They are actually engaged intellectually in the project,” Evans said. “That’s sort of how science happens. I wish we had more.”

St. Jude finds the money from its investigators who will hire students and find the money in a slot from a grant or other ways that the research is funded.

Last fall, 42 Rhodes graduates entered medical school, some after taking a year or two out and some entering straight from Rhodes.

“We think it’s extraordinary that you could have that level of success at a college of our size,” Troutt said. “We see the results when students are able to make these connections. We see it in their success right out of college.”

This year, Rhodes formally launched The Memphis Center, a set of six initiatives Troutt started.

They include the Shelby Foote Collection, the papers and library of the late Memphis author that is still being catalogued and archived, and the Mike Curb Institute for Music, whose fellows work at the city’s various music heritage museums.

A group of “friends of the college” in Texas endowed the regional studies program in which faculty at Rhodes works with students on issues related to Memphis and the region.

Rhodes students are still fond of the Peace Corps. And Rhodes has the first collegiate chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Troutt says the level of Rhodes students involved in Teach for America has made the education reform effort a sort of new version of the Peace Corps for a new generation of Rhodes students. In 30 years as a college president, Troutt sees differences in students then and now.

“I think our students obviously continue to change,” he said. “You really see just stunning young people coming out of high schools who have a level of preparation that you wouldn’t have imagined 30 years ago who are able to multi-task in ways you could have never imagined.”

Some of that has to do with the rapid change in technology several times over in recent years.

But Evans has noticed it as well in other ways. The Rhodes students working with researchers don’t hesitate to become part of the collaborative process as they are immersed in the science. And the doctors and researchers they work with accept it without drawing a line between student and teacher.

“They’re going to be connected with first-rate scientists that are often not working in close proximity to a liberal arts college,” he said, noting that the connection is one of the benefits of a liberal arts college in an urban setting.

“If we can stimulate these kids if they are struggling between, ‘Do I go into medicine or science or do I go into something else’ – and they’re really good at working in the lab and they find themselves in that process – then we see it as a good thing for the field,” Evans said. “But also it’s possible they could come back to St. Jude someday. If we can somehow stimulate them to go into working on childhood cancer, ultimately whether it’s here or somewhere else, that’s either directly or indirectly advancing St. Jude’s mission.”

The Rhodes learning corridor is another service learning program that focuses on the Midtown area around the college campus. It is a diverse area that includes inner-city Memphis next to some of Midtown’s finest homes next to industrial factories and plants next to natural areas. In the corridor, Rhodes students work as tutors to schoolchildren or help plan and plant community gardens.

The corridor includes a service program not far from campus, at the Memphis Zoo, directly across North Parkway where its unique sounds have been a part of campus life since Rhodes came to Memphis.

The zoo had its Carnivora Building but was about 11 years away from building its Monkey Island in 1925 when Southwestern moved its campus from Clarksville, Tenn., to Memphis. The college was recruited by city leaders at the time including Mayor Rowlett Paine.

“City leaders of Memphis during that time … really worked to get then Southwestern to come to Memphis,” Troutt said of the history of the college, which began in 1848 and adopted the Southwestern at Memphis name upon its arrival. “They saw our college as an instrument to making the city a more vibrant place.”

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