Eyes Wide Open

Immersion programs give students an opportunity to have a life-changing experience.    

When Gina Labato ‘14 arrived at Rollins in 2010, she considered herself mildly interested in service work but a first-year immersion trip to the Florida Everglades flung open her eyes and there was no turning back. Two years later, she’s co-leading that Everglades trip, an experience she sees as critical to embracing life at Rollins.

“The thing about immersion trips is that they aren’t just service experiences but they are personal growth experiences,” said Labato, who serves alongside Lucas Hernandez ‘13 as student coordinator of the Office of Community Engagement’s (OCE) Immersion Program: Citizens Take Action.

Each semester, more than 100 students participate in immersion programs coordinated through OCE. Anchored in important social and environmental issues, the trips are designed to submerge participants in experiences with the potential to completely transform one’s worldview. But they are as much about connecting students to an issue as they are about connecting students to each other.


Students restore a neighborhood playground in Immokalee.

“When I joined the Everglades trip in my first year, I was still struggling to find my place at Rollins, and this trip turned that around for me,” Labato said. “Now as a co-leader, I can see how these experiences really help some students step out of their shell; you see a lot of deep friendships form. These trips have it all: learning, service, but also camaraderie.”

Don’t get Labato wrong; the trips are a lot of work too. Students on the Everglades trip participated in exotic plant removal in the everglades and got lots of hands-on experience in understanding how humans are impacting that ecosystem. “We had reflection every night connecting it all to our life at Rollins, our part in the world, why we felt a need to partner with places like the everglades,” Labato said.

Labato and Hernandez oversaw several other fall immersions, including a Habitat for Humanity trip to St. Petersburg, Florida in September, a Labor Day weekend trip co-led by Hernandez to Deerfield Beach focused on the accessibility of nutrition and healthy eating in underserved communities, and a fall break trip to Immokalee, Florida where students learned about the evolution of agriculture in the area and the life of Immokalee’s immigrant and migrant farm workers.

In November, one group of students will travel to Gainesville to learn about the rights of the area’s homeless population, and another will head to Blue Springs State Park.

To say that immersions are life changing would be an understatement for Hernandez, who has participated in nearly a dozen such trips. “All immersion trips complement both the academic and social aspects of a Rollins education,” Hernandez said. “What they do best, however, is give students a new energy and sense of purpose which forever changes for the better their time at Rollins and beyond.”

Hope has Rhythm

How the Dance for Parkinson’s program is restoring mobility for patients with Parkinson’s a disease.

Imagine if day by day, cell by cell, your brain stopped talking to your body. While that would be an oversimplified explanation of Parkinson’s disease, the crux of the disease is that the brain slowly but steadily disconnects.

But what if, using the power of the imagination, those communication paths could be reconnected? That’s the hypothesis that drove the Mark Morris Dance Group to develop Dance for Parkinson’s, a program that encourages dance professionals to share their knowledge of movement and rhythm in classes that address such Parkinson’s-specific concerns as balance, flexibility, coordination, isolation, and depression.


Robert Sherry, professor of theatre arts and dance, facilitating an Orlando Dance for Parkinson’s class.

Naysayers need only visit Robert Sherry’s Orlando Dance for Parkinson’s class to see that restoring mobility is not only possible, it’s happening. Since January, the professor of theatre arts and dance, along with his Rollins colleague, Robin Wilson, has been co-teaching the program. “My outlook on the disease has completely changed. We are seeing results, people are getting better,” said Sherry, who now sits on the board of the Central Florida chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association. “Surgery, support groups, and medication are part of this too, but there is no doubt, this dance program is making a difference.”

Sherry first became involved in the program when he was contacted by Anissa Mitchell, Parkinson’s outreach coordinator at Florida Hospital, in 2011. “Florida Hospital had sent therapists to the Dance for Parkinson’s workshop but realized that they didn’t know enough about dance to facilitate the program effectively.”

Since kicking off the program in Orlando, Sherry was inspired to share the experience with faculty at this summer’s Associated Colleges of the South (ACS) teaching workshops. “We had the opportunity to teach seven minutes with a group of eight or so other professors for the purpose of having our teaching critiqued by other professors,” said Sherry, who taught a component of his Dance for Parkinson’s class. “People loved it so much; there was so much enthusiasm for this. In fact, I was later approached by Dr. Mamoon, physician and director of the pre-health program at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, who expressed interest in somehow bringing the program to his pre-med students.”

As a result, Sherry and his colleagues from Millsaps applied for an ACS grant, which they received this fall. Starting next year, Millsaps students and faculty, dance instructors in Jackson, and local Parkinson’s disease (PD) patients will work with Sherry and Wilson to engage in a cross-institutional, interdisciplinary, engaged-learning course that will connect students’ understanding of neurobiology to practical issues of health and well-being.

“It’s exciting to see this expand into other colleges,” Sherry said. “Robin and I get so much out of it. The people we are working with are an extremely bright and motivated group of people. It’s incredibly gratifying to make a difference in their lives.”

A Community Classroom

Connecting curriculum to community engagement.

When Kim Dennis, associate professor of art & art history, set out to plan her upcoming community engagement designated course, the decision to work with the Rollins College Educational Talent Search (ETS) program was a no-brainer. “This Intro to Women’s Studies course focused on us working with four different community partners,” Dennis said. “Working with one that the College already supports just made sense to me.”

After Dennis created her Talent Search team, the group of three students began reaching out to girls enrolled in ETS. Since its arrival on campus, the program has offered onsite college preparatory mentoring to selected students in grades 6-12 in target schools throughout the metro-Orlando area.

The first project was to invite the Talent Search girls to campus for a tour, lunch, and discussion of women’s issues. A few weeks later, they all participated in the St. Jude Give Thanks Walk. In November, they volunteered with the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida by planning a party for kids celebrating their birthday that month.

Dennis sees the connection between the theoretical work they’re doing in the classroom and the real-world experiences community engagement brings as a critical pairing. “It gives an opportunity for my students to partner with students in the community and bring some elements of the class to these high school students, such as body image, positive self image, and all kinds of issues related to race and class,” Dennis said. “It gives my students a chance to connect with real-world circumstances outside of their own and also to serve as mentors and role models.”

“Working with the community definitely enriches my classroom experience in that, every time we discuss something interesting in class, I think about how I can apply that to Talent Search, and I wonder what the girls will have to say,” Jamaica Reddick ’15 said. “The girls of Talent Search are not only enthusiastic, but they are opinionated and loud about those opinions. It’s a beautiful thing to see and it gives me hope for a new generation of women who can succeed in whatever field they choose.”

Reggie Drummond, Talent Search counselor, was floored by all the positive feedback he got from the Talent Search girls who worked with Dennis’s students. “The Women’s study session provided mentoring and allowed the Talent Search students to see college women as big sisters,” Drummond said. “The value of that is immeasurable.”

Assistant Professor of Psychology Alice Davidson saw similar value in incorporating college preparatory mentoring into her Adolescent Development class. Davidson’s students have been presenting workshops to students enrolled in Upward Bound, a year-round program for motivated students with academic potential who desire additional academic preparation, advisement, and encouragement to succeed in high school and later, in college.

“I really wanted to include a community engagement component to this course so that my students had the opportunity to apply the adolescent development concepts they are learning about in class and to observe teenagers in action,” Davidson said. “As a result, we are working with approximately 30 ninth and tenth grade girls and boys presenting three mini workshops, which take place one Saturday a month, on topics such as balancing work and school, and managing stress.”

Davidson became interested in partnering with Upward Bound when she learned about the program’s goal to increase the rate at which participants complete secondary education and enroll in and graduate from college. “I wanted my students to assist with that goal by sharing their college experiences with these high schoolers who are only a few years behind them in the process.”

Nicole Inclan ‬ ’14, one of Davidson’s students, has been working with the Upward Bound students and has been moved by their commitment to the program. “It’s not always easy, as the Upward Bounds students demonstrate by coming to Rollins early each Saturday for tutoring and more work in addition to their regular school commitments. But they believe in themselves and want to take control of their futures. I have a lot of respect for them,” ‪Inclan said. “I think they are gaining a solid support system in the Upward Bounds staff and Rollins community.”

“I’m so pleased with how engaging the workshops have been and I’ve enjoyed learning about the diverse experiences of my own students as they’ve opened up to the ninth graders. Likewise, it’s been fun to watch the high schoolers engage with the Rollins students by asking them various questions regarding choosing a major, playing sports, and working full time, for example,” Davidson said. “This definitely is a mutually beneficial partnership, as the Rollins students are learning from the Upward Bound participants, as well.”

Red, White, Blue and Civic Engagement, Too

Brock Monroe ’14 and Sarah Elbadri ’13

Sarah Elbadri ’13 and Brock Monroe ’14

Rollins’ Democracy Project cultivates political discourse while encouraging civic engagement.

The 2012 presidential election will likely be remembered as one of the hardest fought political races in history. It’s also been one of the most emotionally charged. People on both sides of the fence have strong opinions about where this country needs to go, and these opinions don’t often align.

But students Sarah Elbadri ’13and Brock Monroe ’14 don’t shy away from a hearty political debate; in fact, they embrace it as a critical part of the democratic process.

“We take for granted how lucky we are to be living in a democracy,” Elbadri said. “Not only can we vote, but we can freely discuss our beliefs.”

That’s the sentiment that drove the creation of The Democracy Project, a non-partisan endeavor tasked by the Office of Community Engagement with engaging students in the process of democracy.

For the past 6 months, Elbadri, a student in the Master of Planning Civic Urbanism program, leans democrat; Monroe, a communications major in the Holt school, have been engaging the campus in political discussion and encouraging civic engagement.

Monroe, who is also JUMP’s civic engagement chair, sees this as an important right of passage for college students. “We want to make sure students know their political identity based not on their parent’s beliefs, but on their own,” Monroe said.

Throughout the fall, the Democracy Project hosted a variety of pre-election events on campus, including debate watch parties and voter registration drives. Monroe kicked-off the President’s Council on Democracy and Civic Action, which besides discussing ways to better strategies for politically engaging the student body, hosted local politician speaking events, such as one attended by Former Congressman Lou Frey and Dick Batchelor, former Democratic state legislator.

Eldradi sees the mission of the Democracy Project as being inexplicably tied to that of the College. “We are trying to develop a culture on this campus of civic responsibility,” Elbadri said. “We want to present the students with hard issues and have them critically think about them.”

Now that the 2012 Presidential election is over, the Democracy Project continues to forge ahead. Monroe and Elbadri have started plans for a civic leaders institute and a trip to Tallahassee in the spring, which will give students the opportunity to meet with politicians face-to-face.

“We want students to leave Rollins with more than what they learned in politics class,” said Monroe.