A Division I athletic conference competition measuring student voter participation; an annual health fair for the Hispanic community; a podcast where students get real about their struggles and triumphs; and a faculty and staff training that’s helping improve the college experience for LGBTQ+ students. These are just a few examples of successful community initiatives that got their start during Mercer’s Visionary Student Panel (VSP), and five more student projects are now being developed.
On March 21, nine undergraduate students will present their ideas for making a positive mark on the community during the latest VSP Showcase. The event is open to the public and starts at 6 p.m. in Willet Auditorium on the Macon campus. Audience registration is encouraged but not required.
VSP began in 2015 and has gone through several reworkings since then. The program took a break in 2022 and is returning this year with additional emphasis on mentoring and coaching to help students carry out their ideas, said Lauren Shinholster, associate director of engaged learning.
“At its core, VSP is an opportunity to bring your ideas to life. All accepted presenters can apply and receive funding to implement their projects,” Shinholster said. “In previous iterations, VSP has been described as a socially conscious ‘Shark Tank,’ but we want to take the ‘shark’ aspect out of it. It gets their wheels moving where students are thinking about how to research, implement and work with the community.”
The student presenters for the upcoming event went through an interview and application process in February and have been working on their project proposals since then. On March 21, they will present their ideas to an audience that includes a panel of faculty and staff judges: Dana Horsford, coordinator of new student programs; Dr. Cameron Kunzelman, assistant director of fellowships and scholarships; Margaret Rooyakkers, assistant director of service and civic engagement; Dr. Samantha Murfree, assistant vice president for student affairs; and Melissa Rodriguez-McClain, executive director of Centenary Community Ministries Inc. The judges and attendees will provide suggestions for students to use to further develop their projects.
“For the audience, it’s the opportunity to support their peers and give feedback. I hope it motivates them to pursue their own ideas,” Shinholster said. “For these students, these are their own independent projects that they can carry on with them beyond their time at Mercer. It’s really a low-risk experiment that can have a lot of high rewards for them.”
Projects being pitched this year involve new math tutoring methods for elementary school students; a community survey that gauges residents’ happiness; a book that focuses on Mercer’s integration and continued work toward racial reconciliation; a campus marketplace that highlights minority businesses; and creating a Macon chapter of an organization that provides beds for children.
The upcoming showcase is smaller and will get the program back on its fall schedule, with another showcase planned for October. The goal is for students to have a full academic year to go from idea to implementation, Shinholster said.
Following the March 21 event, students can apply for up to $1,000 in funding from the Center for Engaged Learning. If awarded a mini grant, they will work with Shinholster to refine and implement their ideas and secure additional funding that may be needed. The VSP program is designed to be a cohort experience as the students go through the process and mentoring together.
“This is the first year that I’m directing the VSP,” said Shinholster, who has served as a panelist since 2017. “For me, it’s really about seeing the students showcase their ideas. They’re really passionate about their ideas. I get a lot of joy seeing them shine in that moment and being able to carry out their ideas.”