Social Impact Scholars Create Positive Change and Explore Issues of Social Justice

A group of Champlain students is united by one common goal: to make an impact on the world. They’re asking tough questions, spreading awareness, and giving back to their communities.

Many of us dream of making a difference in the world. These students go out and make it happen. For two years now, Champlain has tapped a group of incoming students to join our Social Impact Scholar program. Through the program, students dive into topics of social importance, examine issues from every angle, and develop projects in their own areas of interest.

“I’ve always believed you shouldn’t complain unless you are willing to go out there and try to make a change, and be the change you want to see,” says Social Impact Scholar Dylan Beebe (right). “Don’t just talk about what’s wrong with the world. Do something about it.”

From income inequality to sexual harassment, renewable energy to net neutrality, Social Impact Scholars take on the issues of our time and work to create positive social change in their chosen fields. They learn how to reflect critically so they can develop and articulate their own informed positions on any given issue. And they get involved. For example, a student concerned about homelessness will be encouraged to explore the issue in depth, come up with a plan to address it, and spread awareness in ways that will make a difference.

What unites us is our desire to make our communities better. We all want our work to mean something, and for it to have a positive impact on others.

Nina Valladares ’22 // Law

Dr. Eric Ronis, Assistant Dean of our Communication & Creative Media division, laid the groundwork for the Social Impact Scholar program more than two years ago. “It was apparent to me that a growing number of young people (our current generation of students) hungered for something more than a solid paycheck,” he said. “The concept of a better world actually mattered to them!” With these students in mind, Ronis collaborated with colleagues from the Core and Education & Human Services divisions and others at Champlain to flesh out a program that would allow students to make an impact on the world while they worked toward their college degree.

Dr. Eric Ronis’s field of research covers protest and dissent, political and social movements of marginalized groups, and live performance.

Ronis and the students are now shaping the direction of the program together. Currently there are 24 Social Impact Scholar students, including first- and second-year students, representing all Champlain College divisions. “The group spans disciplines, ideologies, and life experiences,” says Ronis. The students are encouraged to value their differences and treat them as a valuable resource. He says the ideas and skillsets and personal stories from many different corners can “come together and create something new, synergistic, and exciting.”

Students discussed activism and advocacy with Core professors and Interim President Dr. Laurie Quinn last fall.

Each semester, Scholars experience a series of modules that expose them to various attributes of our local community. One month they might focus on local politics. In another, community service. In December and January, they explored local businesses like Skinny Pancake and Rhino Foods that are committed to positive social impact as part of their mission.

Social Impact Scholars and Stiller School of Business faculty meet with Ted Castle, owner and President of Rhino Foods, a Burlington-based Certified B Corporation. With refugees making up 30% of their workforce and a commitment to improving social and environmental conditions, Rhino Foods doesn’t just aim to bring about positive social change, it’s doing it.

During the community service module, Dr. Christina Erickson, Director of Champlain’s Center for Service & Sustainability, organized a day of service. The students spent the day volunteering and learning more about local nonprofits like ReSource, PRIDE Center, Peace & Justice Center, and Hands VT. As they painted, cleaned, and generated ideas to promote the work of the centers, they also absorbed a great deal of information. At Hands VT they learned about food security and isolation—two critical issues facing seniors in our community.

Dr. Christina Erickson (left) organized a day of service during which students volunteered and learned more about local nonprofits.

I love the Social Impact Scholar program. It brings together a cohort of students who care about a topic (or many topics)—who want to make a positive mark on their community and put their passion into action. It is community engaged learning at it’s finest!

Dr. Christina Erickson

At the end of October, the students rounded out their local politics module with a trip to meet Mayor Miro Weinberger and City Councilor Karen Paul at Burlington City Hall. The Mayor and Councilor Paul delved into their own political backgrounds and talked about how to get involved in local politics. Weinberger said he got his start during a gap year between sophomore and junior year when he interned for Senator Patrick Leahy. “Not only did I realize government was important. I got to see the day to day of what it takes to make government work.”

City Councilor Karen Paul (left) and Mayor Miro Weinberger met with students at City Hall to talk about local politics and the quality of life in Burlington.

“Politics and policy-making is one aspect of creating social change that I want our students to be aware of, appreciate, and perhaps even actively engage with (either while students or in the future),” says Ronis. “I was very happy that both the Mayor and Councilor Paul spoke about the accessibility of participating in local government.”

“A lot of attention goes to national politics (just try to ignore it!),” says Ronis. “But it is possibly more important for students to know how things get done on the ground, at the local level of government (or, for that matter, in business, the arts, or a social service organization).”

The students pressed the two representatives on issues of diversity, inclusion, and climate change, and asked about student voting and other ways their voices might be heard. Mayor Weinberger said there are many more students voting in municipal elections now than when he started. “Your generation is much more engaged,” he said. “It has changed the way council’s decision has been going on things from climate change to housing.”

Members of the Social Impact Scholars group and Mayor Miro Weinberger pose in front of City Hall.

As we start to welcome newly admitted students to the Social Impact Scholar program, we’re excited to see what issues they will take on. Whether they run for local office, launch their own nonprofit, or address issues of justice and inequality in their industries, these young activists will be the change they want to see in the world.

Want to get involved? Participate in one of these advocacy and activism events next week celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy:

Let us Discuss:
Wednesday, January 23, 11:30 AM—1:30 PM: Meet our Social Impact Scholars in Fireside Lounge for a drop-in discussion on how to talk about social political issues using non-violent communication techniques. Led by Professor Eric Ronis, each table will introduce a topic and invite people to discuss.

Let Us Serve:
Friday, January 24: Be an advocate and join us for a day of service supporting local organizations like Clemmons Family Farm, Fletcher Free Library, Lund, Migrant Justice, ReSource, US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants Vermont, or help make lasagna for a handful of other community agencies.  Click here to sign up before space fills up. 

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