SRU Bonner Leader feels at home helping others


Jayla Brown

Jayla Brown, right, a Slippery Rock University freshman psychology major from McKeesport, visits with residents at Grove City Quality Life Services, a community partner site for SRU’s Bonner Leader Program.

(Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of articles introducing students from Slippery Rock University's inaugural Bonner Leader class. To read previously published articles, click here.)

April 8, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Jayla Brown feels right at home in a nursing home, which makes the recent visitation restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic difficult to fathom. It's not just because she worked as a nursing home aide when she was in high school, or that she comes from a family of nurses. For her, it's the feeling of helping others, hearing their stories and forming relationships that keep her grounded.

"That's just something that really makes me feel like I'm at home," said Brown, a Slippery Rock University freshman psychology major from McKeesport. "My mom would come home and talk about (nursing home) residents like they were her friends, and seeing the affect they had on her definitely inspired me to do that type of work as well."

Brown is one of five freshmen in the Bonner Leader Program, a program in its inaugural year at SRU where students receive a wage to a lead a community-service partnership for the University. One of the partnerships is with Don't Stop Dreamin', an organization that fulfills the "dreams" of residents living at Quality Life Services, a network of skilled and personal care facilities with locations near Slippery Rock. Resident "dreams" can include such experiences as a fishing trip, attending a concert or getting a makeover.

But before she was in a position to make dreams become reality, Brown was unsure if attending college, let alone being selected for the Bonner Leader Program, would be a reality for her. After graduating from high school, Brown worked for Angel Hearts home health care in Pittsburgh, a logical choice given that her grandmother, Gina, and mother, Shannon, worked as nurses. However, going to college would require bigger commitment and lifestyle change, especially after she become a mother herself. After one year at Angel Hearts, she decided to enroll at SRU.

"I didn't know if I was going to go to college, because I didn't want to be away from home and I was stuck between (going to college or continuing being a home health aide)," Brown said. "I finally decided last January that I wanted to go to college, and (SRU) was the only college I applied to and I got in."

Not only did she get in but she applied and was accepted for the Bonner Leader Program, a program that SRU had just launched, joining an exclusive network of 64 institutions in the U.S. to adopt the Bonner Foundation's civic engagement and scholarship model. The Bonner Foundation oversees the network to ensure that institutions are expressing the organization's "common commitments" of civic engagement, community building, diversity, international perspective, social justice, spiritual exploration and wellness. Bonner Leaders at SRU receive $5,000 in financial support each year for four years, including a $3,000 scholarship and $2,000 earned through their work in the community. They must commit at least 10 hours per week during the academic year to leading a partnership with a community organization and maintain a minimum 2.5 GPA.

"All throughout high school I didn't really do anything extra in terms of extracurricular activities or community service, so I wasn't sure if I would get into the program or not," Brown said. "When (I applied to be a Bonner Leader) I kind of looked within myself to see if I could do more in college. This program provides that opportunity and that's special to me. I regret not having done more in high school."

Part of the Bonner Program mission is to help recruit and retain a diverse group of students who might not otherwise be able to attend college.

"The program intentionally seeks underrepresented students and does not necessarily reward students for what they've already done in their communities," said Jeffrey Rathlef, director of SRU's Office of Community-Engaged Learning, which helped facilitate the program's launch at SRU. "Students may not have had the privilege to volunteer or maybe they have been the recipient of a service. What we are looking for in students is a strong sense of identity, an ethic for service and a passion around social issues. Then we can channel that through community service and volunteering."

Brown was interviewed by SRU's 10-member Bonner Program Advisory Committee. The BPAC, which is comprised of SRU faculty and staff, Bonner Program staff and student coordinators and a community member, chose Brown and four other first-year students from among nearly 50 applicants to represent the program's first cohort. Subsequent cohorts will include 10 students per year. Once the program is operating at full capacity there will be 40 students in the program.

"We aspire all of our Bonner Leaders to have or be able to develop traits that include civic leadership, a diverse perspective and a passion to effect change related to social issues and the larger community," said Sami Laurence, SRU's Bonner Program developer. "The qualifications for the program are consistent with the Bonner Foundation's common commitments. Through their lived experiences, diversity and desire to learn, our first cohort meets these qualifications and they are certainly positioned to lead the way in developing partnerships with the community and setting a precedent for future Bonner students who enter the program."

Brown admits that her first year as a Bonner Leader has been a challenge, especially balancing life between living on campus and having a 2-year-old son, Aiden, who is cared for during the week by family in McKeesport. However, she is motivated by her commitment to serve others and build relationships. Brown and one other Bonner Leader, Danielle Blide, a freshman biology major from Newton, New Jersey, are helping lead SRU's partnership with DSD. This includes recruiting more than 30 volunteers for SRU's service-learning program called Dream Chasers.

As part of Dream Chasers, SRU students visit with residents at nearby nursing homes and record the residents' life stories for a booklet they provide the resident at the end of their time together. Through this program, nursing home residents at partner sites that include QLS facilities in Grove City and Chicora can potentially be identified to have a "dream" fulfilled by DSD. Brown witnessed the effect Dream Chasers had on nursing home residents last semester, but the entire program is on hold with the coronavirus outbreak restricting visitors to nursing homes and SRU switching to online classes for the remainder of the spring semester.

In addition to DSD, other community partners include the Slippery Rock Community Library and the Macoskey Center for Sustainability Education and Research. Each Bonner Leader will work to build capacity for more SRU volunteers and resources and by their fourth year in the program, their focus will shift to community action and scholarship.

Reflecting on her first year as a Bonner Leader, Brown identified one trait that Bonner Leaders share: compassion.

"We're all extremely compassionate about the community partners and what we're doing," Brown said. "You have to really want to do this because it is hard work, but when you're doing what you love and what you're here to do, the rest really comes easy, like the bonds and the relationships you make."

Because of those relationships, similar to what she observed from her mother's vocation, Brown has found a new home within SRU's Bonner Leader Program.

"It's like a home away from home," Brown said. "You get to really see (the impact of your work) and you have people who are going to be there to support you. I encourage anyone who may have the opportunity to be a part of this program to do so."

To learn more about the BLP at SRU, including information for students applying for the 2020-21 academic year, click here.

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