Spencer Center Empowers Students to Experience and Change the World

November 25, 2013

From leading diverse service projects to studying abroad, the Samuel and Ava Spencer Center for Civic and Global Engagement offers students abundant opportunities for personal growth, discovery, and skill development, outfitting them with the tools to make a difference in our communities. The Spencer Center opened in 2007 and fundraising efforts through Ever Ahead: The Campaign for Mary Baldwin University are building the endowment.

“At Mary Baldwin, we believe that education is even more powerful when reflected through experience and translated into action,” said Steven Grande, executive director of the center. “The Spencer Center is constantly seeking local, regional, and international partnerships that allow our students to take what they are learning from our outstanding faculty and put it into practice to address the most serious issues facing our communities and the globe.”

Johnna Bingham ’16 traveled to Nicaragua and Costa Rica in December 2012 to serve in a mobile clinic that visits impoverished neighborhoods. With the aid of a scholarship through the Spencer Center, Bingham spent nine days over her holiday break performing basic health exams for people who live in underserved communities.

“I want to be a physician’s assistant. I love biology and healthcare, and I gained a lot of experience during my trip. I was able to check vital signs, perform urinalysis, administer shots, and assist with pre-natal care. My eyes were opened to how many people need medical care and how vital it is — it truly is life and death in many cases,” she said.

Inspired by her experience in Central America, Bingham led a project last spring during which she raised supplies for 500 basic wellness kits for Haiti. Shealso works in the Spencer Center as a study abroad coordinator and student ambassador. Beyond service, she enjoys connecting with international students at Mary Baldwin, whose main hub is the Spencer Center. “I just feel really at home in the Spencer Center — you learn a lot, not just about yourself, but also about local and global communities. I learn something new every day,” she said.

Healthcare Administration major Analisse Vasquez Soto ’15 also found direction for her passion to serve through the Spencer Center. She participated in two May Term classes led by Artist-in-Residence Claudia Bernardi and traveled to El Salvador on a mission trip to provide eye care in underprivileged areas.

“I was able to see firsthand how people live in another country and how much they appreciated our service. It’s important to be reminded of the power of gratitude,” she said. “The Spencer Center has had the biggest impact on my college experience.”

Changemakers — student employees who serve the college while building careers — Vanessa Ogbuehi ’14 and Astrid Salarda ’14 have also found places in Mary Baldwin’s service community. Salarda hopes to work in the nonprofit sector, and has served in various capacities through the Spencer Center, including volunteering for Rebuilding Together Greater Augusta — a volunteer organization that provides critical home repairs for the elderly, disabled, and disadvantaged.

“I’ve been able to see the conditions in which some people live. We’ve all seen the statistics and can understand on a basic level why helping is important, but seeing it in reality takes it to a whole different level — all of a sudden, your purpose becomes clear, and making a difference for that one person doesn’t seem so small,” she said.

Ogbuehi participated in two alternative spring break projects, where a small group of students pool their resources to perform service and learn how to help their communities in specific ways. She led a campaign during Hunger Awareness Week at Mary Baldwin last year that resulted in an increase in local volunteers. She is also a regular attendee at Spencer Center-sponsored lectures and events.

“The Spencer Center has given me the initiative to recognize problems and find solutions. When you think of changing the world, it is overwhelming and intimidating, but the Spencer Center helps you target a way to begin helping, one step at a time. Students have a voice here, and we’re given responsibilities. While you’re working toward change, you come out of it a changed person — stronger and more confident,” she said.

Associate Director of Civic and Global Engagement Rhea Vance-Cheng ’09 enjoys witnessing the transformation students undergo. “I love to watch students connect their classroom learning to hands-on experiences — whether it’s building a wheelchair ramp for a home in Augusta County or performing a stream clean-up with the Friends of the Middle River watershed protection group — that challenge them to put theories into practice,” she said.

Young alumnae Kelsey Heathcoat ’13, Aisha Ford ’13, Caitlin Henck ’12, and Robyn Stegman ’09 hold a place in their hearts for the Spencer Center and its mission to promote local and global engagement.

Heathcoat teaches English in Japan, a decision she made after spending a May Term in Tokyo and her sophomore year in Kyoto and Hirakata. “I gained a lot of self-confidence, made many new friends, and decided I wanted to teach in Japan,” Heathcoat said of her personal growth.

Ford said she practically lived at the Spencer Center during her last two years at Mary Baldwin, serving as a changemaker, student ambassador, and Spencer Citizen peer advisor. “The experiences I was afforded by being part of such a well-rounded organization influenced the trajectory of my life and were my fondest memories of college. I learned what it truly means to be a leader,” she said.

Henck didn’t anticipate that the Spencer Center would have such an influence on her. She just thought she would pick up credit hours by volunteering. Instead, she spent three months at George Mason University in the Social Innovation Program of the Phoenix Project, learning about the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.

“I finally understood what the Spencer Center was all about — expanding people’s minds, and as Gandhi said, being the change you wish to see in the world. Mary Baldwin takes pride in shaping female leaders who are open-minded, confident, compassionate changemakers,” she said.

Stegman, a project specialist at Campaign Consultation, was studying abroad in India when the Spencer Center opened. Upon her return to the states, she was asked to become an ambassador to help international students adapt to Mary Baldwin.

“I can’t remember the exact moment I went into the Spencer Center, but I knew I had found a place that would forever change my life,” she said.

Stegman became heavily involved in projects at the Spencer Center, and drew from her experiences working with nuns in India who ran a school to prevent young girls from being victims of human trafficking. Through the Mary Baldwin Global Initiative (MBGI) — an organization connected with the Clinton Global Initiative — she was able to raise funds for the school at which she had worked to support its cause.

“Perhaps the greatest gift the Spencer Center gave me was the ability to connect all of my global experiences to working in my own community,” said Stegman, who worked for two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at Mary Baldwin after graduation. “MBGI was really my crash course in developing the skills you need to encourage social change. I made mistakes, but I learned so much about how to run an organization, to put on events, and to inspire, communicate, and build a movement.”