Honors Scholars’ Collaborative Wraps Community Projects with The Branch

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students at Mill Ridge

A year of work for a section of the Honors Scholars’ Collaborative culminated April 26 with a “Night of Thanks” where students made final presentations to local nonprofit The Branch—a community resource center in Antioch that provides English language classes and emergency food support—about the projects they implemented over the past year.  

The Honors Scholars’ Collaborative is the Belmont Honors program’s culminating curriculum where students look at complex problems within the community, develop a proposal and spend the spring executing the project. This year, the class came alongside the University’s existing relationship with The Branch to develop projects to support The Branch’s mission: to build a community where everyone can thrive by nourishing, educating and equipping our neighbors.  

students filming training video

Belmont Finance Professor Dr. John Gonas began working with the Branch three years ago and learned that many families who rely on the center for assistance were looking for a more holistic approach to the resources available. Through a Belmont BASIC grant, Gonas and other faculty decided to categorically tackle some of the obstacles the immigrant and refugee communities face by offering education in finance, career development, health care and more.  

“What I want for our students is to understand the complexity of these systemic problems and struggle with them a bit; there are no easy fixes. And I think this opportunity allowed the students to see our tendency to prescribe,” Gonas explained. “When we commit to working with a nonprofit, we are their guest. We must first volunteer and build relationships of trust – taking the time to really listen and learn. Thereafter, we were striving to come back to the table with a posture of adequately responding and offering resources (curricula, social enterprise development, etc.) that can help this community partner expand and sustain its programming.”  

The 15 students in the class started their fall semester by volunteering at the Branch, getting to know the staff and taking time to listen and understand where gaps existed that students could fill. They all started with individual project ideas but ultimately found connective tissues. The students met with The Branch Executive Director Melissa Thomas to propose three group projects in December.  

Students then spent the spring implementing the projects they proposed, designed in ways that will allow their work to continue on. As Assistant Professor Dr. Mary Ellen Pethel explained, the presentations at the Night of Thanks were more of a “handoff” and less of a final deliverable.  

The projects included: 

  • Creating an online directory of external resources in Nashville – a live, editable document the Branch can update as needed;
  • enhancing the volunteer experience by creating training videos the Branch can use to train future volunteers, as well as a promotional video highlighting the center’s ESL program and community through the life of Branch Volunteer Coordinator Deicira Torres, an immigrant from Venezuela who discovered the Branch through the ESL program;  
  • building community gardens at Mill Ridge in partnership with Belmont Enactus and Belmont alumnus Jonathan West that will provide produce for the Center’s food pantry which is always short on fresh vegetables. The raised garden bed group also interviewed immigrant and refugee clients of the Branch to gather recipes and the stories behind them to compile into an online recipe book. 

Junior music business major Anna Catherine Markham worked on the volunteer experience project with several of her classmates, benefiting from the varying strengths and talents of each student as the class was made up of majors from across University disciplines. She took on more of a communication role for the training videos, where emerging media major Isaac Wetzel utilized his skills in videography. By the end, she said the students became incredibly invested in how their talents were making a difference. 

“I hope that through our project The Branch will be able to see an uptick in repeat volunteers and there will be less confusion among new volunteers about the tasks that are expected of them during their shift,” Markham said. “I also hope that the promotional video is able to bring in a new donor base to The Branch. It has been such an honor to work hand in hand with all the wonderful volunteers and employees of The Branch – these people are the epitome of what it means to have a servant’s heart, and their stories inspire me to continue to give back to my community in any way I can.” 

students present at The Branch

Pethel added that this class represents a new era in scholarship.

“This type of study is different than what our students have done in the past, in that they are deeply embedded in the community rather than writing a thesis,” said Pethel. “Even though sometimes these project-based classes might be more challenging, there’s no substitute for what the students get out of it, what the University is able to learn from it and, most importantly, how we are able to contribute and connect to our neighbors.”