20 Years of Building Community

Caryn Dannah pulled up to Scott Hall last fall ready to launch into something really new. Not only was she moving away from home for the first time — she’d opted into a living situation unlike anything that she’d experienced growing up in Grand Rapids.

As a Phelps Scholar, Caryn “does life” with 95 other freshmen who are part of Hope College’s year-long program focused on diversity. They live together, mostly in Scott. They take a customized, team-taught First-Year Seminar together, visit places such as the Holocaust Museum near Detroit, and build relationships the ways all college students do. (Pizza, pool table — you know the drill.)

Her Hope friends include students from Kenya and Tanganyika. “A lot of my friends are from all over the place. We all come from different backgrounds, believe different things, but I feel like we all came together and formed good bonds,” Dannah says.

Students entering the program view it through forward-looking eyes: it’s a mind expander, a connection maker, an adventure.

Looking back, the view seems to be quite similar: It’s a mind expander. It’s a connection maker.

And for two decades, it’s an educational adventure.

As the program celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2019, Phelps Scholars staff are assessing its long-term impact by interviewing alumni and gathering data. Here’s what program director Yolanda (Yoli) De Leon ’88 Vega is hearing again and again from Phelps Scholars from the past two decades:

The program changed how they view other people. It changed their awareness of their own biases and privilege. They appreciate more now why it matters to know what happened in the past. They remember breakthrough conversations late at night. They feel open to travel and new ideas. (Dannah signed up for a Hope spring break project in Jamaica. First passport! First flight!) They can navigate difficult conversations about volatile issues; they welcome them. They are less quick to judge and more inclined to listen and understand.

“What makes a difference is the academic component, as well as the cultural experiences they can share in. It’s not just coming back to a place where there’s people they know,” Vega says. “It gives students an opportunity to truly learn from each other if they’re willing. Most are.”

“Living and learning communities” like the Phelps Scholars program are common now at American colleges. Hope has three. In Day 1, freshmen plunge into developing real-world research and design skills with faculty and student mentors as a part of their first semester courses — and a bunch of them opt to live near one another in Lichty Hall. The Emmaus Scholars, mostly sophomores and juniors, share Hope cottages and explore issues of social justice and faith.

But programs like this were a new idea in the 1990s when Dr. Steve Spencer ’88, who taught at Hope at that time, got the ball rolling for the Phelps Scholars along with education faculty member John Yelding. (Yelding has remained involved throughout the program’s 20 years, including as a frequent teacher of its First-Year Seminar.) Professor of Psychology Dr. Charles Green, who led the program from 1999 to 2013 as the founding director, notes that then-provost Dr. Jacob Nyenhuis championed the idea with college faculty, staff and trustees, who were all considering how to encourage students of color to join the Hope community.

“As we were developing the nuts and bolts of this program, it was very clear that if you want to have a genuine impact on a college student, catch them in their first year, create a community of people they can get to know and trust, and teach them important things,” Green says.

The program launched with 39 participants in 1999. One of its goals, then and now, is to make Hope more welcoming and appealing to students of color and those from other nations by providing an opportunity to find community among students sharing the experience of adjusting to a predominantly white American campus. Another is to offer all students an immersive, relationship-rich opportunity to learn together about culture, race, and various forms of discrimination, and develop their own views about diversity and inclusion.

A psychological concept that was on Dr. Spencer’s mind when he suggested that Hope should create a program of this type was “stereotype threat,” which Green sums up as a combination of the knowledge that there are stereotypes about the group you’re part of, and the fear that in a broader group, you’ll be treated more like those stereotypes than as the individual you are.

Connecting person to person can’t erase that, but it makes a dent. The Phelps Scholars staff and faculty leverage events and class time to help that happen. On a visit to a Chinese church in Chicago, over Cuban empanadas in Detroit, in a class discussion of the book Why Are All the Black Kids Siting Together in the Cafeteria?, connections strengthen.

“In two months they say they feel like they’ve known each other well for a long time. They are taken aback by how quickly and deeply those relationships form,” Vega says.

Phelps Scholars report that there’s a misperception around campus that nearly every minority student is part of the program and lives in Scott Hall. Actually, no; the program is open to any student of any ethnicity, and while accepted international students and students of color are invited to become a Phelps Scholar, just a fraction do so. In a recent year, for instance, about 25 percent of the Hispanic students in an entering class joined the program. The proportion is higher for international students.

“Living and learning communities” like the Phelps Scholars program are common now at American colleges, but programs like this were a new idea in the 1990s.

For some students, though, the safe zone that the program provides is a critical element as they navigate a campus that at about 82 percent Caucasian can be quite different from home.

“Students of color might otherwise, I think, find it difficult to imagine themselves at an overwhelmingly white school like Hope,” Green suggests, “but in the context of a pretty diverse residence hall can make that leap.”

That was the case, for instance, for Phelps Scholar alumnus Jesus Romero ’16, who is now a talent recruiter for Herman Miller. Before college, his world had been a Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles. At Hope, “as soon as I stepped out of that building, I was in a sea of students who didn’t look like myself,” Romero recalls. The sense of home he found in Scott Hall helped him through the transition. “I could step outside for a bit, and come back and feel that safety.”

In a few short months, the Phelps Scholars program will provide a sense of home for a new group of students from around the globe. Continuing a tradition of two decades, they, too, will find a place, make friends and learn together about each other, themselves, and the challenges and rewards of living with others in a world of many races, cultures and perspectives.

Reading List

Interested in exploring topics related to diversity and community? Here, recommended by founding director Chuck Green, is a sampling of books that the Phelps Scholars have read together in First-Year Seminars through the years.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, 2009

Along with recent history of women’s and girls’ experiences around the world, this nonfiction best-seller “gives us a window into how marginalization works — how power works — how dominant narratives work to support the power system,” says Green.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., 1997 (rev. ed. 2017)

A classic exploration of race relations in America, written by a psychologist to help readers move beyond fear and anger to a new understanding of what racism is and what individuals can do about it.

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel, 2014

There’s little explicit about race in the 2018 Lakeshore “Big Read” novel, but themes of developing community spin out from the storyline about survivors of a worldwide calamity and their efforts to reestablish civilization.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
by Ann Fadiman, 1997

A journalist reports on the complexity of providing Western health care to recent Hmong immigrants from Laos whose worldview is radically different.

My Name is Asher Lev
by Chaim Potok, 1972

Readers of this novel learn about the Hasidic Jewish faith, how it plays out in a family and a
New York neighborhood, and the tension between traditional culture and the modern, secular world.

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