7 Ways Rollins is Building Community from a Distance

November 30, 2020

By Elsa Wenzel

Students participate in service work at a farm only 40 minutes from campus.
Group service work as part of Rollins’ Immersion program shifted mostly to virtual deep-dives on topics like food insecurity and environmental justice. Photo by Scott Cook.

Tars are coming together safely in reimagined spaces and real-world settings to make a lasting social impact in our community.

U.N. Millennium Fellows are advancing solutions to global challenges. Bonner Leaders are empowering underserved populations to vote. Communication studies students are helping children cope with grief. These are just a few of the ways that Rollins students and faculty have continued to impact communities in our backyard and around the world in the era of physical distancing.

Driving meaningful change remains front and center to the College’s mission, one that has led Rollins to earn accolades such as Florida’s Most Engaged Campus and No. 1 in the nation for highest percentage of students who participate in alternative breaks. Despite the constraints of the pandemic and while upholding safety guidelines, Tars have gone out into the world, both in person and virtually, to develop as global citizens and responsible leaders.

Whether it’s supporting marketing efforts for local nonprofits or developing a pitch for a social enterprise, Tars are using the 21st-century skills they’re learning at Rollins to tackle issues like food insecurity and homelessness that are facing our communities.

Communication professor Sarah Parsloe and her students use a puppet to communicate with grieving children via Zoom.
Students partnered with a local theater group to create puppets and learned how their creations can serve as communication tools for grieving children.Photo by Scott Cook.

Community Engagement Courses

Each semester, Rollins offers dozens of classes that feature a service-learning or community-based research component, and this past fall was no exception. In 25 community engagement (CE) courses, partnerships with nonprofits put theory into practice to protect the environment, address homelessness, and empower young people, among other causes.

“Disruption isn’t always a bad thing,” says communication professor Sarah Parsloe. “It is often an opportunity for innovation. This is an ideal time for both community members and students to imagine how they can be of service to each other.”

In Parsloe’s CE course, Difficult Dialogues in Health Communication, students participated in a digital book club, interviewed family members, and wrote end-of-life advance directives. For Dia de Los Muertos, the class contributed to memorials of loved ones for an altar on the stairs of Kathleen W. Rollins Hall and live-streamed the event.

“This course has taught me a lot about the importance of connecting with others even if we can’t physically be together,” says Alana Goodwin ’22, a double major in psychology and health communication whose relationships and experiences at Rollins have inspired her to become a professor.

Parsloe’s students worked with local grief center New Hope for Kids—which helps children process devastating loss—to plan a digital version of the organization’s annual Children’s Grief Awareness Day. WebEx rooms brought the class together with nonprofit staff members, mental health professionals, and families. The students also participated in a digital workshop with local nonprofit theater group, Michelee Puppets, to create puppets of their own and learn how their creations can serve as communication tools to help grieving children.

“It was completely hands-on, I loved it, and it was so amazing to learn about what an impact these puppets have,” says communication major Lauren Walier ’22, whose struggles in her own life with cerebral palsy inspired her to start a nonprofit, Make Lemon Aide, which raises both awareness for the disease and money to train CP therapists and fund research.

Student and professor collaborating on the white board in the Social Impact Hub.
From the new Social Impact Hub space in Kathleen W. Rollins Hall, students can engage virtually and in person on everything from brainstorming sessions to pitch competitions.Photo by Scott Cook.

Social Impact Hub

In addition to a host of virtual engagement opportunities, aspiring changemakers now have a new home to nurture prototypes and business plans in the new Social Impact Hub in Kathleen W. Rollins Hall.

Hands-on prototyping spaces and supplies are available in the Design Lab, as are ad-hoc class times and work space for InnovaTAR student employees. Human-centered design thinking and methodology are top of mind as students collaborate to solve local and global problems.

Fully virtual this fall, the Impact Incubator matches up student teams with expert mentors to shape a dream into a social enterprise or pilot project. The Ideas for Good pitch competition in December puts ideas from the incubator and other Tars to the test. Winners earn seed funding and move on to the Global Social Innovation Challenge in June.

Business management major Mariana Elias Souza ’21 is continuing to develop a startup idea that took shape last fall in the Impact Incubator and won second place in the Ideas for Good challenge. She’s further developing Recyconnect, her online brokerage system for eco-friendly businesses, this fall as part of her U.N. Millennium Fellowship.

Student masked up planting in the organic garden on campus during an Immersion experience.
In November, students participated in an on-campus Immersion aimed at lessening our carbon footprint by working the urban farm and participating in lake cleanup.Photo by Airam Dato-on ’13.


Rollins’ signature Immersion experiences mostly shifted from overnight journeys to one-day virtual deep-dives on pressing topics like social justice and food insecurity, pairing original presentations with meaningful conversations meant to spark a passion for service.

“While the Tars Promise may require that we don’t leave campus and remain distant, it does not prevent us from building relationships with one another and becoming close,” says Yoke Tassent ’22, a philosophy and biology double major who served as an Immersion student facilitator this past fall. “Immersion is one of the best ways for first-year students to meet like-minded individuals and simply have a fun weekend in which they make a difference.”

The year’s first Immersion—which took place virtually—explored the issue of hunger during this economically challenging time, including practices to help the greater community. From there, Immersions brought to light the social aspects of the environmental justice movement, weaving together the dynamics of race and ethnicity alongside ways to further environmental equity, and showed students how they can shrink their carbon footprint through composting, working the on-campus urban farm, and tracking food-waste levels on campus.

“Immersion looked very different for our team this year,” says Carley Matthews ’22, who serves on the new Immerse Your Thursdays team that plans events launched to exercise both minds and bodies. “Our programming this year has an emphasis on education, engagement, and reflection, where we can hone in on cultivating a deeper understanding of the current climate we are in pertaining to social justice.”

Renee Sang pictured on bright-blue steps in Morocco during her internship with Morocco World News.
Renee Sang ’21 gained valuable skills during her internship with Morocco World News that she applied to her recent service work for Hope CommUnity Center, a local nonprofit dedicated to the empowerment of immigrant and working poor communities.

Bonner Leaders Program

As part of the Bonner Leaders Program—a national philanthropic organization that empowers scholarship recipients to address challenges through community-based learning—Renee Sang ’21 helped create a booklet for the Hope CommUnity Center about political candidates and amendments on the ballot in the November election. Drawing on her double major in studio art and critical media and cultural studies, Sang calls it a natural fit for remote work.

“It’s refreshing to be around people who are so passionate about informing others about the election process and who have dedicated their lives to filling in the inequity gaps in the U.S.,” she says.

Forty Bonner Leaders in total have shifted to virtual interactions this past semester, which has emboldened creative thinking in their capacity-building work like coordinating online fundraisers, conducting community-based research, and crafting curricula for new programs.

Sociology major Emily Curran ’22 used to work shoulder to shoulder with staff at the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center of Florida. Since the organization is temporarily closed, Zoom meetings and asynchronous project work became the new norm. Curran is compiling patrons’ feedback about the center’s virtual programming, which has tackled social movements including Black Lives Matter and collected accounts from Holocaust survivors.

“Although I do miss interacting with patrons and the staff in the office, they’ve cultivated meaningful projects for me in a virtual environment,” says Curran. “Most importantly, the projects are mutually beneficial for my growth as a student, a Bonner Leader, a person, and for the mission of the Holocaust Center.”

Donayja Gates ’23 planting sod at a community center for SPARC Day, Rollins’ annual day of service.
Rollins’ traditional introduction to service for incoming students was transformed into a series of impactful SPARC Moments throughout the semester.Photo by Scott Cook.


When the coronavirus crisis sent most of the campus home last March, the Center for Leadership & Community Engagement and the Center for Inclusion & Campus Involvement joined forces to launch the ever-evolving TarsTogether campaign to rally Rollins around community-building efforts and vibrant new offerings to stay connected. The result has been a transformation of treasured Rollins traditions accessible to every member of campus, whether remote or in person.

The flurry of activity usually held on SPARC Day to jump-start the academic year for first-year students became a series of SPARC Moments, where new Tars engaged in socially distanced community service activities tailored to their passions.

Students also used their spare moments to squeeze in a speedy service project to benefit nonprofits through 5-Minute Differences, small gestures that pack a big punch like sending cards to loved ones or writing letters to political candidates.

Students walk to the polls for early voting on Election Day 2020.
Masked-up Tars took to the polls on Early Voting Day to make their voices heard.Photo by Scott Cook.

The Democracy Project

Civic engagement through the student-led Democracy Project ramped up during the fall presidential election season, which was just the start of activities to keep students absorbing new information, debating, and participating in the democratic process. This fall, the Democracy Project helped more than 210 Tars register to vote, going door to door (masked up, of course) and staffing tables on Tars Plaza in partnership with the Orange County Supervisor of Elections.

The group’s 12 student coordinators implemented campus-wide efforts to encourage the Rollins community to make a plan to vote and to vote early. They also hosted a slew of in-person and virtual events throughout the semester to celebrate and promote participatory democracy, including debate watch parties, book clubs, film screenings, and the much-loved Politics on Tap event, the most recent of which engaged students in deliberative dialogue about the movement to remove Civil War Confederate monuments.

Thanks in large part to these efforts, Rollins has been recognized repeatedly as a Voter-Friendly Campus of the Year by the Campus Vote Project and Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. The College—which continually boasts higher voter turnouts than its peer institutions—works to set an example in the civic engagement space. The Democracy Project is a key ingredient in making this a reality by creating strategic plans to help students overcome barriers to participating in the political process.

“Having the opportunity to be the Democracy Project student coordinator allows me to have a hands-on leadership role in increasing the civic engagement of the community I live in,” says political science major Sophia Allred ’22. “My goals and aspirations are to engage my local community to participate actively in the democratic process, and this means taking the initiative to be educated about what’s going on in our society and actively engaging in respectful dialogue and debate about the issues that define our lives.”

Nico Khazzam ’18 teaching schoolchildren to read on a field study to Tanzania.
This year’s cohort of U.N. Millennium Fellows worked to advance Sustainable Development Goals like quality education and zero hunger using a host of digital resources and virtual communication tools.Photo by Scott Cook.

Millennium Fellowship

The prestigious U.N. Millennium Fellowship program has selected young leaders representing 80 campuses across 12 countries this fall. Among them, 12 Tars seek to promote positive change through the lens of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, which include eliminating poverty, improving education, and boosting sustainability.

Mariana Elias Souza ’21 and Madhavi Mooljee ’21 serve as the program’s campus directors, keeping up digitally with the 10 other Millennium Fellows at Rollins on a regular basis.

“We have these intense conversations about changemaking at this moment in our society and what youth can do today,” says Mooljee, a communication major whose hybrid in-person and virtual fellowship is advancing the sustainable goal of eliminating poverty.

She is working with the nonprofit iDignity to help homeless people obtain identification cards necessary for voting as well as producing a booklet packed with resources to help those who are housing insecure. Growing up in Zimbabwe before moving to New Jersey during high school shaped an empathetic view.

“Having to make a life for yourself here starting from scratch is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever experienced,” says Mooljee.

And meeting people through iDignity who have hit rock bottom gives her deeper insight into the forces shaping hardship in the U.S.

“That’s why I celebrate the Millennium Fellowship, to give students my age the ability to see that they can make positive change even if it seems impossible,” she says. “This generation is the generation of change.”

A Campus Committed to Change

Rollins is one of just 42 colleges in the world to earn Ashoka U’s Changemaker Campus designation, which recognizes the leading institutions in social innovation and changemaking.

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