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Bonner Leader Program at CSB and SJU expands with foundational support

For the first time in more than a decade, the Bonner Leader Program at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University is expanding.

The Bonner program, which originated in 2008 and provides approximately 10 students from each incoming class an opportunity for scholarship, professional development, workshops, training and skills through community-based student employment, recently received additional ongoing support from the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation. It will provide for a weeklong service immersion trip to Chicago for first-year students, a sophomore exchange program with Augsburg and Macalester where Bonners will gain perspective from another campus, two summer leadership fellow internships, an academic-year internship, funds to travel to three conferences, and smaller one-time grants for individual faculty to support the program.

“The Bonner program is a great opportunity for our students and one we’ve been wanting to grow for some time,” said Adia Zeman Theis ’12, associate director of Experience and Professional Development (XPD) in the Experience Hub.

Zeman Theis coincidentally was part of the Bonner pilot program in 2008 at CSB and has worked with it since her graduation in 2012 with a degree in communication.

“The first five years of the program, it was pretty much student-run,” she said. “Now it’s gotten to the point where it’s a really having an impact on students and the community. This new funding is going to help make it better than ever.”

Bonners say experience, scholarship go a long way

Each Bonner Leader currently gets a $2,500 scholarship (renewable for four years if they stay in the program) intended to provide access to education and the opportunity to serve. The commitment includes a 10- to 12-hour a week position at a community site, attendance at two two-hour meetings each month, and completion of two training and enrichment events of the student’s choosing and two or three full-group service and leadership activities each semester. There also is an orientation prior to the start of fall semester, a mid-year retreat prior to the start of spring semester, and students complete a senior capstone project.

Alex Host ’23, a biology major from Brainerd, has found the support of the program integral to his college experience.

“Bonner provides students with an opportunity to engage our community by forming meaningful relationships with the local residents,” said Host, who works as a student director with CSB Community Kitchen. “By welcoming additional responsibility through public initiatives, we grow as students and as future leaders of the community. At my service site, this is exemplified by students sharing the meals we deliver with those we serve. When paired with a good conversation, these meals are guaranteed to satisfy hearts and hunger. Through Bonner, I have a rare opportunity to form sincere connections that yield true differences in our community.”

Emma Muller ’23, a psychology major from Bemidji, said the Bonner program has been extremely impactful in her college experience.

“I am so thankful for all of the meaningful and deep relationships I have formed with my fellow Bonners,” she said. “I am constantly amazed by everyone’s unique passion for different causes and social justice issues. Bonners are special because they each have an internal obligation to leave the world better than they found it. This community of people pushes me to be my best, find my why, and stay curious.”

Bonner program participants

Thirty-one of the 40 Bonner Leader Program participants posed for a photo during an August orientation.

The relationships she has built also created an advantageous network for her future.

“Bonners are always willing to help one another,” Muller said. “This is a huge benefit for future generations of Bonners. This is a group of extraordinary people who are always willing to help the next generation succeed … As the program continues to grow, future Bonners will gain more access to scholarships and opportunities for their enrichment. I am so excited to see all of the amazing things the future Bonners do and be a resource to them.”

Senior intern, faculty fellow help propel program

Anna Watt ’23 is a CSB senior elementary education major from South St. Paul, who works at the Community OutPost (COP House) in St. Cloud. The COP House is a community-owned house in St. Cloud’s South Side neighborhood that serves as a base for public safety efforts. Watt is one of several undergrads who engage children through the “Books with College Buddies” program.

The new funding allowed her to take part in this past summer’s Bonner Leader Institute in Trenton, New Jersey. It was a multiday gathering of Bonners from all over the country. Watt also is the new Bonner senior intern, the academic-year position made possible by the new funding. She works with the Bonner leadership team (two students from each year’s cohort of 10) to rebuild the program following the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic.

She said she’s been thrilled after three years to learn how much students in the Bonner Leader Program care about making the world a better place.

“People put in a lot of time and effort, selflessly, into things you might know nothing about,” Watt said. “When I say something about the COP House or Community Kitchen, most people have no idea what those are. But it’s a big part of every week for me and the other people in the program.

“You learn so much about what’s going on in the world because you’re with all these other people who care so much about what’s going on in the world. There are people who wake up and think about sustainability. There are people who wake up and think about equity in education. But we’re just students and we’re learning. We’re just people who care.”

Ted Gordon, a visiting assistant professor who teaches anthropology in the sociology department, has served as the Bonner Faculty Fellow for the past three years. His main responsibility is to act as a resource to other faculty as they develop community engaged learning common to the Bonner program and perpetuate it at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s. The new funding will ensure his permanent role within the Bonner program. His goal is to connect the community engaged learning.

“We’ve had three faculty members work with each cohort – a total of nine so far – and what we’re trying to do is get those advantages the Bonners experience and expose them to a broad range of students,” Gordon said. “We’ve been able to develop a relationship with community partners where their needs, which our students can meet, match the learning goals of some of our classes. We think we can broaden that and allow more students to get some really amazing experiences.”

Application deadline Jan. 15; more support needed

Current high school students interested in Saint Ben’s or Saint John’s can apply now to the Bonner Leader Program. The application deadline is Jan. 15, 2023. For more information or to answer any questions, contact Zeman Theis at [email protected] or call 320-363-5237.

Zeman Theis said the future goal of the program is to increase financial support from other donors to raise the number of Bonners that can be accommodated each year. For more information about how you can invest in future Bonner Leaders contact Heather Pieper-Olson, vice president of institutional advancement, at [email protected].

Marianna Delgado ’23 (left) and Gretchen Gunderzik ’26 work on a sod-laying project during an August orientation for the Bonner Leader Program.

Joseph Fuller ’26 helps place roof sheeting during an August orientation for the Bonner Leader Program.