Honors Connect – A step in the Right Direction

A pre-college program under Temple Honors, Honors Connect, seeks to foster a deep interest in volunteering through immersive community service

What struck Tommy Nyfenger, a first-year honors student here at Temple, on his first day was how the stage at a local community concert held just steps away from main campus was positioned so it didn’t face Temple at all. For Nyfenger, it was a sign—maybe these community residents don’t want us here. 

As a fiercely dynamic campus smack in the middle of a bustling neighborhood, Temple’s vicinity boasts an eclectic population of not only students, but also community members local to the North Philadelphia area. The essence of community service is deeply embedded in Temple’s history and core mission, as well as the enrichment of this symbiotic relationship shared by its students and the community surrounding them. 

Over the years, however, this relationship has deteriorated significantly due to a lack of mutual trust and respect plaguing what was supposed to be a source of common community good. One of the most ambitious attempts at repairing this bond was recently initiated in August 2019 by the Temple University Honors Program with the end-goal of inculcating the spirit of community service in incoming honors freshmen a week before the official start of the semester. 

“What initially drew me to Temple was its proximity to home,” says Jordan Wenning, a first-year biochemistry major in the Honors Program who hails from suburban Pennsylvania. “What pushed me specifically to apply for Honors Connect was its focus on community service in an underserved neighborhood.” For Wenning, this felt like the perfect way to jumpstart her college career and familiarise herself with the community she was going to be situated in for the next four years. 

Promising an early move-in and a chance to explore campus before the hustle of a new semester settled in while giving students a taste of immersive, engaging and fulfilling service, Honors Connect is the brain-child of Seth Finck, a faculty advisor here at the Honors Program. Accompanied by his fellow colleague, Roseilyn Guzman, he fleshed out a 6-day intensive program, underpinned by 3 main community concerns: food insecurity, trash dumping in residential areas and youth development. 

To tackle all three of these areas, Finck and Guzman went on what they describe as a wild goose chase—the formidable task of contacting local non-profits to collaborate with, coordinating with the Office of Housing and Residential Life to make early move-in arrangements for the incoming students and then finally finding ways to localise this effort to make even a miniscule attempt at rescuing the rapidly devolving relationship between Temple students and the neighborhood surrounding them. 

Together, they selected a pool of fourteen incoming honors freshmen and 5 upper-class honors students to serve as peer mentors to perform various acts of service all day for six days at various locations on and off campus.

To kick off the program, mentees participated in a scavenger hunt in Old City, which allowed them to familiarize themselves with their peers and mentors while also getting a chance to venture out and discover the city. During the rest of the week, they volunteered with MANNA, Sunday Breakfast Rescue, and Penrose Recreation Center in clean-ups, food preparation and distribution. In boiling 90 degree weather, grinned at by the unrelenting peak-of-the-day sun, they also cleaned up the 17th and Norris block right off campus. 

To finish off this gruelling service, participants came together at the end of each day to engage in productive dialogue and reflect on their experience. Most students expressed disbelief at the amount of trash, half-empty beer bottles and discarded furniture they saw while touring the area around campus and during the block-cleanup. 

For Jay Vines, a first-year student from North Carolina planning on majoring in Sports, Hospitality and Tourism Management, these end-of-day reflections were the highlight of his experience. “It was fulfilling to be surrounded by so many like-minded, driven individuals who care about the community and are so passionate about spearheading change,” he said, adding that before Honors Connect, he had never had such an immersive service experience.

Through conversations with Rachael Stark from the Office of the Dean and Professor David Bromley, Honors Connect also provided participants with a professional insight into the spirit of service and how to continue getting involved in it throughout their college lives. In a particularly interactive session, Stark enlightened students with the various services provided by her office, including the Wellness Resource Center and the Cherry Pantry for food-insecure students.  

All in all, this program highlights for us that however small it may be, a step in the right direction can set the tone for greater change. By targeting incoming students, this program provides an honest look inside the North Philadelphia neighborhood and the impact of gentrification with the advent of Temple’s expansion, allowing participants to critically think about their role and impact. 

Written by: Rjaa Ahmed

Photography by: Gabriel Glenn

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