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Life of a Sharpie

by Katie D'Adamo
Sharpe Scholar
Monroe Scholar
W&M '05

In the beginning...

Rolling In…
That first day, navigating Campus Drive in a car packed with rowdy siblings, anxious parents, and a year's wardrobe, the butterflies take flight in your stomach. Will you mesh with your roommate? Will you ever cram all this junk into your room for two? How do you find the perfect balance of work and play to fill the mere 24 hours it takes Earth to rotate? And being a Sharpe Scholar adds a new bundle of qualms to fuel your anxiety. What would the "service-learning" and "living-learning" guarantee entail? You liked service, had doled out soup to the homeless and built walls with your bare hands in high school-but this 'Sharpe' seemed a whole different beast, taking students to address issues in that elusive place: "behind-the-scenes". Concerns about the type of work you would do and freshman life with like-minded volunteers crept into your mind. Would program participation isolate you from fellow freshman… create a "service stigma" that entailed single-minded commitment to the betterment of others… deprive you of even the choice for play? What had you gotten into?

The 'WOOD'…
At the first official gathering of participants, soon self-dubbed "Sharpies," an enthusiastic buzz that would characterize every Sharpe event could be heard from the study lounge. Students related their interests and hopes for success in the program. Gatherings were easy, thanks to community living in Spotswood - a dorm located in the corner of campus, with the caf and 'New Campus' nearby. Living together in no way isolated Sharpies (as Botetourt is rife with four other freshman dorms) but rather created a sense of collective purpose - a college community interested in exploring new ways to help in world beyond campus.

Throughout the year, Sharpe Scholars truly gained a sense of community. Sharpies trekked together to forums, heard President Sullivan (endeared "Timmy J" to many contingents) laud the virtues of a service-learning, and engaged in discussions about related notions of participatory democracy. When projects began, living together became invaluable. Fellow group members were, at most, a couple floors away, so if a logistical problem needed solving, only a few stairs required mounting. Chats about project progress could often be heard amid toilet flushes and blaring music. Fringe benefits were discovered approaching the first econ exam: the dorm was chock full of students looking for study partners, all eager to explain how the abstract concepts were not so obscure after all and offering examples from their projects to make lessons more concrete. And the special Sharpe study lounge contained computer resources, conference space, and on several occasions, that much needed study office-for Sharpies as well as other residents.

Project Blast-Off…
A few weeks into the experience it's time to choose the goal toward which you will work. Sharpies anxiously took their seats in a room full of promise as community partners outlined their visions of Sharpe partnerships. There was a projects for everyone-developing ways to teach the realities AIDS to kids who think themselves immune, finding meaningful employment opportunities for the mentally ill, making recycling more accessible to a community with an express interest in conservation, and designing a government website where citizens can do anything from register to vote to pay utility bills. Because Sharpe is a student-guided experience, partners encourage student initiative. They provide a goal, and Sharpe Scholars working on the project determine the steps for arrival at the doorstep of success. This faith in student abilities and the related prospect of freedom to design your own unique plan left Sharpies imbued with a sense of purpose and eager to get into the nitty-gritty of their chosen project. Everyone was paired to a project, and the first group forums were held, in which big-dreaming Sharpies bounced ideas off of one another and exchanged advice and anecdotes.

The Nitty-Gritty…
From then on, experiences differed vastly. Every first-year Sharpe Scholar has his own unique story to tell. Once their goal was determined, each group developed a process and a timeline for their activities. Surveys were written and rewritten, implemented, and applied. Brochures were reworked and perfected to better represent the agency. All of this required patience, cooperation, tolerance, and a little bit of give. Meetings with professors, staff, and experts in areas such as marketing (about which the average freshman knows little) were needed to develop a game plan. Forums supplemented the practical knowledge often by reminding students of the philosophical, ideological, or utilitarian purpose behind their involvement, by providing students with insights from faculty members who believed in the program. Slowly students endeavored toward final products, with ample consultation and direction when needed. Communication with faculty and Fellows was always open and available, and the fire in the hearts of the director could not help but inspire.

Looking Out On The Horizon…
The amount of time and effort put into Sharpe varies according to student and project. The going was smooth for some-deadlines met on time, and products masterfully presented in good form. For some students, it took awhile to ascertain exactly what their goals would be, and how their partner agency could best benefit from their aid-but even these students endeavored to wrap their brains around the missions of their respective community partners. Whatever the process, Sharpe meant real involvement, which in turn yielded real change.

Ironically enough, the goal of non-profit organizations is always to cease existence, for the eventual goal in any endeavor for social equality is to eliminate the need for the service altogether. The thing that made so many projects in the first-year program successful, against all odds and hurdles, was a common vision for a better world where there would be no inequality to battle. Those involved with Sharpe entertained an idealism and optimism about change, but instead of merely touting theory, they endeavored to apply it to real problems. The energies of all were well invested, and Sharpe became a program about which all first-years could not help but be proud. The successes were not just theirs, they were the community's; they were the accomplishments of those who gave the program a chance. And the program, with one year of experience under its belt, has nowhere to go but up.