SRU launches nationally recognized Bonner Leader Program


Student participating in the DreamChasers program

Slippery Rock University students previously visited with residents at the Quality Life Services nursing home in Grove City through a partnership that will soon be led by students in SRU’s new Bonner Program, a civic engagement and scholarship model intended to transform students, communities and the campus through service.

Aug. 27, 2019

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — A new program that Slippery Rock University is launching this fall will provide access to education and opportunities for civic engagement through a nationally recognized service model that has been adopted by an exclusive network of institutions. SRU is one of only 64 institutions in the country to sponsor a Bonner Leader Program, in which students receive a combination of an institutional scholarship and a paid student leadership position for leading a community-service partnership for the institution.

SRU joins schools like Allegheny College, Waynesburg University and Chatham University as one of only seven institutions in Pennsylvania to join the Bonner network, and is one of only 10 public schools in the nation to sponsor the program, which administrators say transforms students, communities and its campus through service. Other public institutions in the Bonner network include the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Nevada-Reno and the University of Houston.

"Starting a Bonner Leader Program is a significant step in furthering (the University's) commitment to our students and the community through service leadership," said SRU President William Behre. "The Bonner Program is a prestigious and proven model that will enhance our profile and provide additional opportunities of mutual benefit for the students, the community and our campus."

President William J. Behre


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 while maintaining a minimum 2.5 GPA. The first cohort of Bonner Leaders include five first-year SRU students. Subsequent cohorts will include 10 students per year. Once the program is operating at full capacity there will be 40 students in the program.

"The Bonner Program is ideal for community engagement because it opens doors for students, helping them become more informed through service-learning and connected by developing relationships in the community," said Jeffrey Rathlef, director of SRU's Office of Community-Engaged Learning, which helped facilitate the program's launch at SRU. "The program is also reciprocal for the public good because the community partners collaborate and provide input to create this democratic environment that allows for deeper civic engagement."

Community partners include agencies such as the Slippery Rock Community Library, the Macoskey Center for Sustainability Education and Research, the Butler County Humane Society and the Don't Stop Dreamin', a foundation for Quality Life Services that helps nursing home, rehab and personal care residents in western Pennsylvania. Bonner Leaders start by volunteering with the organizations during their first year before advancing to leadership roles in their second and third years to build capacity for more volunteers and resources. By their fourth year their focus is on community action and scholarship.

"It's a unique, powerful model," Rathlef said. "From day one, students are placed within the community and there's a very intentional developmental process that takes place. By their senior years they are leaving a legacy in many ways, with partnerships and program projects."

Jeffrey Rathlef


Students were recruited into the program and strategically placed based on their interests in social justice causes such as homelessness, women's rights and immigration issues. Additionally, there's a preference, but not a requirement, for students from underrepresented groups. Established in 1990 at Berea College in Kentucky through the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation, the Bonner Program was created to provide diverse, low-income, underrepresented and first-generation students with opportunities to attend college while using their talents and education to provide community service and develop leadership skills. While some schools still provide scholarships through the foundation as Bonner Scholars Programs, all the institutions in the network, including SRU as a Bonner Leader Program, are committed to the program's founding mission.

"The program intentionally seeks underrepresented students and does not necessarily reward students for what they've already done in their communities," Rathlef said. "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."

Bonner Leaders are selected into the program through a collaboration between SRU's Admissions Office and the Bonner Program Advisory Committee, which consists of SRU faculty, staff, students and community partners.

The five participating freshmen for 2019-20 are Danielle Manalang, an English literature major from Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Danielle Blide, a biology major from Newton, New Jersey; Melissa Lopez, an exercise science major from Pittsburgh; Jaeden Chapman, a communication major from Turtle Creek; and Jayla Brown, a psychology major from McKeesport.

To assist in launching the program, SRU hired Sami Laurence as a program developer. Laurence, a 2019 SRU graduate with two master's degrees in park and resource management and environmental education, was a Bonner Scholar as an undergraduate at Allegheny College, where she majored in environmental studies.

"Being a part of the Bonner Program changed my career path and informed everything I've done," said Laurence, who is also the interim program director for the Macoskey Center. "It opened my eyes to the social issues related to environmentalism and sustainability and I was able to make connections and better identify root causes, whether that was through working on a youth experiencing homelessness campaign or hosting a nutrition workshop. All of these lived experiences are not possible to teach in a classroom."

OCEL is also providing student mentorship for the first cohort of Bonner Leaders, especially because there are not yet any upperclassmen in the program. Jacqueline Routhier, a junior early childhood/special education major from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, is the program's community partnerships coordinator; Montanna McClue, a sophomore neuroscience major from Spartansburg, is the campuswide engagement coordinator; and Edward Quinones, a junior homeland security major from Easton, is the communications and operations coordinator.

The Bonner Leader staff will help organize direct service events; train, assess and mentor the students; and help manage relationships with community partners, as well as internal groups, such as student clubs and organizations.

"It's exciting to enter this new realm of civic engagement," Laurence said. "Each of the students and our community partners bring different dynamics and the goal of our program is to have everyone learn from one another."

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

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 |