Summer Service Fellowship

By Katie Cannon ′15

For a learning experience deeply rooted in the soul of Memphis—its passions and its problems—students at Rhodes look to the Summer Service Fellowship, a program designed to nurture a thirst for social justice and cultural growth in its fellows while giving them the tools to achieve those goals.

Each of the fellows spends the summer working 36 hours a week at a nonprofit of their choice. Every Tuesday afternoon, however, the entire group gets together with the program’s leaders for first-hand experience of Memphis issues, with each week devoted to a different theme that aligns with the students’ service work. The first week, for example, they investigate the public transportation system, an oft-overlooked facet of Memphis’ wealth divide and its resulting inequalities.

Most students at Rhodes have never taken a ride on a MATA bus, having cars of their own to get where they need to go. The first week, however, they are given a mission: divided into groups, they are assigned certain locations that they must reach using only the MATA buses. By the end of the first week of the fellowship, they’ve felt for themselves the importance of the system for Memphians whose livelihoods essentially depend on the existence and efficiency of the buses. Each following group session focuses on another societal or economic concern, giving the fellows a broader overview of Memphis issues. “We try to make students conscious of as many social issues as we can,” says Alex Dileo ’16 , the program’s student coordinator. “We want them to see first-hand the ways these issues impact the Memphis community.”

According to Dileo, a veteran fellow herself, the service work performed in the program is anything but predictable. Rather than following any set personal objective, the fellows are encouraged to simply go with the flow: “It’s about putting your own goals and priorities second and being open to anything your nonprofit needs you to do,” says Dileo. In her own fellowship with Memphis Area Legal Services, a nonprofit that serves the city’s elderly and impoverished populations, she says she did everything from fielding emails to helping her boss find a missing person.

This diversity of the work seems a perfect match for what is a diverse group of students, both in interests and experience:  according to Dileo, while some of the students are Bonner Scholars with countless hours of volunteer experience, others have never done service at all. The program, however, is highly selective; only 16 students are chosen each year. So what are they looking for in a fellow?

Above all, the fellowship is an opportunity for a rare breed of student, what Dileo calls a “servant leader.” This rather paradoxical personality possesses all the necessary qualities required of a leader, but tempers them with a deep selflessness, and the drive to “help others but also empower them to help themselves,” as Dileo puts it.

For Sadie Yanckello ’15, her fellowship with Crosstown Arts, a nonprofit  “dedicated to further cultivating the creative community in Memphis,” presented an ideal opportunity to, as she says, “be involved in Memphis and get out of the Rhodes bubble.” As a part of her fellowship, Sadie has done everything from handling administrative tasks to working in the organization’s flea market and painting and preparing gallery showrooms.  The fellowship gives her the chance to get real experience in her field of interest. Says Sadie: “I am thinking about a career in the nonprofit sector, specifically arts nonprofits, so Crosstown is essentially my dream!”

At the end of their service experience, the fellows will gather to present poster sessions on their work. In the meantime, Sadie has high hopes for the rest of her summer: “I hope to gain a better understanding of what service means, gain skills I can use in the workforce, and get to explore a whole new side of Memphis.”