Bonner Congress Reflection
Dr. Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra!: that was the closing for the keynote speech of the 2015 Bonner Congress. This year’s speaker, KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, didn’t offer trite motivational statements. Instead, he finished his address to college student leaders and set the focus for BonCon 2015 by challenging visiting representatives and University of Houston Bonners to go beyond the established methods and programs. He challenged them to go beyond the letter Z.
Every year, student leaders from every Bonner program in the nation gather at Bonner Congress to showcase their schools’ commitments to service as well as represent student voices in the network. This year, at the University of Houston, the 108 visiting representatives received feedback for their projects through Big Idea presentations and gained new ideas from the numerous workshops that were held.
“Our Bonners now know that any project they come up with can take notes from a similar project at another school, that they should contact the network for ideas, tips and tricks,” said Grace Schwarz, logistics committee coordinator. “UH hosting BonCon 2015 exposed our people to the size of the Bonner network and the support that comes with it.”
For the most part, Bonner representatives from each school in the network went to BonCon to present their Big Idea – an idea for a project that would improve their community. These representatives then had the opportunity to participate in workshops that helped them plan and implement their ideas, such as how to engage their entire campus or build better relationships with community partners to support their projects. In addition, a wide variety of workshops were also available for all participants of BonCon – about global and domestic health in “RESULTS,” diversity in “Diversity Dissected,” the U.S Human Rights Movement in “Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win,” or the educational income gap in “#EveryKidEveryTime,” – to expand their perspectives about the issues in the world. There were also workshops aimed to build useful skills for attendees, such as applying to Clinton Global Initiative University in “CGI-You,” refining leadership skills in “Leading with Style,” or how to reflect about success in “An Attitude of Gratitude.”
“To hear the same successes and even different projects at other places was heartwarming,” said logistics committeeperson Kiana Farokhpour. “Most of the new things I learned were related to logistics, planning and how to improve an event. However, these same lessons can be applied to anything we do in Bonner because planning is everywhere. BonCon 2015 reinforced everything I felt Bonner stood for.”
The one thing that all Bonners stand for – perhaps the core of what being a Bonner is about – is the betterment of the community. Bonner Congress was an opportunity for Bonners to be in company of the people who have spent their life’s work doing just that: partners and advocates of the community. BonCon 2015 featured a panel of a student, two directors, an alumnus, and a community partner to discuss what it means to be “All In” – the theme of BonCon – in their commitment to the community. The conference also included a networking event that showcased some of the organizations in Houston that are devoted to alleviating poverty in the city. Participants of BonCon had the opportunities to converse with these organizations and gain knowledge that will help them better their own community. It is often said that we are great because we stand on the shoulders of giants. At BonCon 2015, young students learned from these organizations about how to create great Bonner programs: do better service.
BonCon 2015 pushed attendees to serve their communities in more innovative and substantial ways. It also marked a milestone for the University of Houston Bonner Leaders Program – a program entering only its third year.
“Hosting BonCon at the University of Houston has changed the spirit of our Bonner family,” said Kaitlyn Palividas, coordinator of the social and programming committees. “It brought all Houston Bonners closer together, regardless of their classification or service project. Thanks to the exceptional Houston Bonners, the Congress reps were engaged and excited. They fed off of our energy and passion.”
However, it wasn’t all work and no fun at BonCon. The University of Houston Bonners worked hard to make sure that, while Bonner representatives engaged in active learning, they also felt the Bonner Love from being amongst friends. After the sessions were over, Bonner representatives had the chance to choose between touring the University of Houston’s campus – perhaps one of the biggest campuses some Bonner representatives have set foot on – or watching a movie or playing board games on Friday night. Saturday night featured an outside barbecue at Lynn Eusan Park, a dance in the Honors Commons, and, afterwards, a night trip to downtown Houston on the newly constructed MetroRail. Participants left BonCon having experienced the campus, the city, and one of the greatest things about Texas – its barbecue.
With BonCon 2015 over, Houston Bonners are looking beyond Zebra. Honors in Community Health (HICH), a community health initiative, will grow and expand in collaboration with the Bonner Foundation and the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department. For education, Writing to Inspire Successful Education (WISE) plans to expand to other KIPP schools. As for the organization itself, five Volunteers In Service To America (VISTAs) and Alice Yang will join to provide oversight for student-run programs.
Bonner Director Dr. Andrew Hamilton said, “The VISTA program is a mechanism by which organizations that are doing anti-poverty work can get help for their programs. We’ll try to hire people that have worked in these fields already: so, somebody who’s working in food and nutrition, somebody who’s worked on healthcare. It’s going to be great to have young, energetic, smart people who want to help us move our projects along.”
Whether the project involved education, health, or food, BonCon 2015 refocused attendees on the importance of their work. Projects are not about the university or the program or the volunteers. Feinberg emphasized the selflessness of service.
“My biggest failure by far were my children my first year teaching when I was a horrible, horrible teacher,” Feinberg said. “I could talk about when I failed myself, when I failed at being a better athlete or learning this skill, things like that, but failing other human beings and hurting them on their life trajectory is what will always stick with me as my biggest failure.”
Yet, he embodied the Bonner attitude. He saw a problem, and provided an entrepreneurial solution that serves the community. He set the tone for BonCon 2015, but he also highlighted service as a reminder for why Bonners serve.
BonCon 2015 was a success, but hopefully it would be among the multitude of successes that the University of Houston Bonners Program will achieve in the coming years. “The way we’re successful is that we trust our people,” Director Andrew Hamilton said. “We expect them to drive themselves and their projects as far and as fast as they can go.”
And we hope that “as far and as fast as we can go” is “beyond Zebra.”
Written by: Mason Malone & Alice Yang