Dr. Mary Alice Morgan wanted her students to know more about the city that was their home away from home. So she created a learning experience to expose them to Macon’s history, features and progress.
In October, 48 students in the Mercer Service Scholars program completed a scavenger hunt in downtown Macon, an activity that now will become an annual tradition.
Each year, a new cohort of 16 high-achieving Mercer University sophomores with interests in service and leadership join the Mercer Service Scholars honors program, which Dr. Morgan described as “an incubator for community outreach and development.” Through unique classes and experiences and a senior service project, students learn how to identify and address the needs of their communities.
“At a lot of universities, the university is kind of an enclave into itself,” Dr. Morgan said. “Students will go down and participate in nightlife and restaurants, but the university campus itself is their home away from home. They don’t feel invested in their community. We want students to feel invested in Macon and to kind of learn about what citizenship and being a part of the community actually entails. It’s more than just living in a particular place; it’s being a part of the life and development of that place.”
The first Service Scholars course, titled “local needs assessment,” is designed to give students an understanding of the principles of community development. In addition to reading about these concepts and using Macon as a case study, they have a direct impact on the community while working on service projects. Students participated in the scavenger hunt midway through the fall 2021 semester, after the sophomores had studied Macon and its history, demographics and socioeconomic conditions during their introductory course.
“It’s one thing to read about some of those conditions and then not only to see them but to see what the community aspires to be and all the downtown development,” Dr. Morgan said. “They got the chance to see the evolution of the city and some of the preservation.”
The activity was part of the annual Service Scholars retreat. Prior to the scavenger hunt, students learned more about broad level economic development issues and Macon’s downtown revitalization movement from Erin Keller, NewTown Macon’s chief of staff and vice president for development.
Then, members of the freshman, sophomore and senior cohorts were mixed into three groups, each with a different list of distinctive landmarks to find in a specific area of downtown Macon. After checking everything off their lists, they shared their findings with the other groups.
The scavenger hunt took students to sites like the Tubman Museum, Capricorn Sound Studios, Tic Toc Room, Macon City Auditorium and Historic Macon Foundation. It showed them some of the distinctive architecture in downtown Macon and asked them what they noticed as they walked down certain streets. Students paid attention to the existing businesses and considered what they love most about downtown Macon, what’s missing and what could be improved, Dr. Morgan said.
“You see different things when you’re on foot versus when you’re in a vehicle,” said Keller, a 2008 Mercer graduate. “That puts a student’s feet on the ground walking the streets, and they’re going to find new things that they probably didn’t know existed in town. I think it was a good move to get them off campus and explore what else is in Macon. I think Macon’s come a long way. When I was in school at Mercer, there wasn’t this attraction to want to stay in Macon. But now this renewed sense of civic pride that’s been centered on downtown has renewed people’s excitement and interest in moving downtown and hopefully staying in Macon after graduation.”
The scavenger hunt also pointed out some of Macon’s dark past through landmarks like a “colored waiting room” sign at the Terminal Station; a granite marker at the Douglass Theatre that commemorates the lynching of Black residents; and a marker for a park in the Baconsfield neighborhood that was closed rather than allowed to integrate.
“I think it’s incredibly beneficial to study Macon’s history, first of all, but also to go out in the community to see where that history happened,” said Drew Robertson, a junior journalism and creative writing double-major. “You gain a lot of perspective by learning and being in a place. Doing the scavenger hunt was a big help in really placing us in what we’re studying.”
Kayla Chambers, a sophomore international business and Spanish double-major, said it was a hands-on experience that helped her to get to know Macon and its history better.
“I didn’t realize just how historic Macon was,” she said. “I saw how connected Mercer is with Macon. It was really cool to see that outside of Mercer’s campus we have a home.”
The sophomore cohort channeled their findings from the scavenger hunt into a group service project with the United Way of Central Georgia. The students interviewed residents, teachers, leaders and parents in the Fort Hill neighborhood, and their needs assessment will be used for a new United Way initiative that will create partnerships between schools and their surrounding communities.
Going forward, each new cohort of Service Scholars will participate in the scavenger hunt, Dr. Morgan said. However, the activity could be of benefit to an even wider audience. Robertson said she would like to see an activity like this for first-year students.
“Regardless of who you are and what you want to do, I think it’s important for you to get to know where you are, so that you can become a change-maker,” Chambers said. “At Mercer, we always say, ‘Everyone majors in changing the world,’ but sometimes the world is your back yard … so maybe you should start there.”