Jessica Blanford, Assistant Director with UT’s Center of Leadership and Service, says that while Knoxville has very diverse neighborhoods, many people still see Knoxville as a divided, ‘Campus-Downtown-West Knoxville’ community.
As an aspiring anchor institution, UT hopes to change this perception by engaging more deeply with the larger community’s culture, learning and innovation.
The Center of Leadership and Service sponsors one of 19 UT Living Learning Communities. In the Leadership and Service Learning Community (LSLC), 40 freshmen live and take classes together, and learn about exploring leadership through social change. They are able to discover their personal leadership styles, strengths while they learn about other leadership theories that apply to individual, group, and community values, in order to enact change in where they live.
“For our office, it’s not us sending student volunteers because we need a place to put them, it’s asking community members if they need the volunteers and what can they do to help,” Blanford said. “It’s more of us asking ‘what do you need? How can we help?’ Instead of us trying to save them or give them things they don’t need.”
The primary site that students work in for the Leadership and Service Learning Community is Pond Gap Elementary, a University-Assisted Community School.
“Community schools keep the kids in school while also providing the neighborhood with what they need,” said Robert Kronick, UT faculty member and director of the original UACS pilot program. “The campus is on its way to becoming an anchor institution, but it still has a long way to go.”
LSLC has built a relationship with Pond Gap through its academically-based community service course. In the spring semester, UT students spend 10-12 hours working in Pond Gap’safter school programs. Many LSLC students come from cities and homogenous areas, and are not used to interacting with people different to them. The course is an opportunity for first-year students to understand the diverse backgrounds the kids at Pond Gap come from.
“We want to be a Top-25 institution, and I think one of the ways we can get to do that is to make us a civically-engaged university,” said Kronick. “There’s a need for more people on board with academically-based community service courses. If you don’t have good schools, people won’t move here.”
A community school differs from a traditional one, in that it is designed to support whole families in addition to educating their children during normal school hours. Community schools provide strong after school programs, like homework sessions or cultural activities, and free GED classes for the parents as well. They also provide the family with hot, nutritious meals, laundry services, and medical services in order to help families get their basic needs met.
“They’re very strong, supportive communities but they just may not have as many school resources as other parts of Knoxville,” Blanford said.
The guiding principle at the Center for Leadership and Service is to be able to serve before trying to lead. Blanford cites the Torchbearer as an example that embodies it. She tells her students they have to be able to give up themselves every day and get to know the people who they are trying to lead.
“We’re the Tennessee Volunteers,” said Blanford. “We could be any other mascot in the world, like a bear or a lion, but we are the Tennessee Volunteers, and that means we have to do something. Being a Volunteer requires action.”
The Leadership and Service Learning Community was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.