Pictured from left on back row, PTK members Xun Chen, Gerardo Perez-Rodriguez, Justin Bradley, Alexandra Booker, Maria Petersen, Isaiah Gallardo, Rocio Aragon-Vasquez smile for a photo with their advisors, Rob Dunaway (seated front, left) and Melissa Davis (seated front, right).
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Inspiration and activism flourish in one local student-led project, born on Gadsden State Community College’s campus.
Gadsden State’s Rho Rho Chapter of international honors society Phi Theta Kappa leads by example, representing the college with excellence and raising awareness throughout the community in a powerful way.
Since its inception in 1918, Phi Theta Kappa’s growth expanded exceptionally, receiving acclaim by the American Association of Community Colleges as the official honor society for two-year colleges. The honors society now harbors a presence on 1,300 community college campuses in 11 nations worldwide.
PTK’s mission takes root in its four hallmarks, upon which the society’s foundation rests – service, leadership, scholarship and fellowship. While the society recognizes students’ academic achievements, its perspective reaches far beyond scholastic accomplishments, committing itself to nurturing students as productive society members and successful individuals. Through interactive programs and volunteerism opportunities, PTK welcomes members to develop professionally and emotionally, transforming into enlightened leaders inspired to evoke positive change.
One of PTK’s remarkable programs is its annual Honors in Action project, an incentive that engages students through identification, research and action. Designed to encourage involvement, promote student success and reinforce the society’s mission of providing students with opportunities for growth and leadership, the HIA project combines traditional research practices with innovative ideas.
Through the HIA project, local PTK chapter members identify, select and investigate topics relevant to their campuses or communities. Chapter members then transform the selected research topic into an effective plan of action, outlining projects or events that meet specific needs within their area.
While these projects teach fundamental research skills that benefit students academically and prepare them for future coursework, the lessons students learn via the HIA project stretch far beyond the classroom. Through exposure to new experiences, individuals and issues, students’ eyes are opened to differing viewpoints that give them a broader perspective on life. Working closely with their peers, students develop teambuilding skills and discover the best methods of acquiring resources and developing professional relationships.
At Gadsden State, PTK advisors Melissa Davis and Rob Dunaway direct students as they brainstorm ideas and unearth creative ways to build their project. The project always remains in the students’ hands – Davis and Dunaway just nurture the conversation.
“I gave suggestions, but I never told them exactly what they were doing or how they were going to do it – I let them figure it out,” said Dunaway. “So many topics came up, and I found out the students were really passionate about issues. There were ways you could bridge the gap of discourse without bringing in political rhetoric and really have discussions. [I enjoyed] being able to talk and listen.”
Gadsden State’s current HIA project, entitled “The River Belongs to Everyone,” centers on the conservation and preservation of the Coosa River. Through its campaign, the project focuses on how the choices individuals make directly affect local waterways and encourages practices that benefit the environment, rather cause harm.
All HIA projects follow a blueprint, the Honors Program Guide, which deems projects eligible for awards. Each year, the guide introduces themes for students to explore through their projects, connecting their local issues to a larger picture. Gadsden State’s current project falls under the theme “The Heirs of Our Ways,” which delves into the concept of humanity’s connection to the past, present and future.
“We decided let’s do something for the community that’s different,” said Dunaway. “If your grandad can’t take his grandson fishing, and they can’t eat the fish because it’s poison or there are no fish to catch, that’s a problem for everybody. The river belongs to everyone.”
Gadsden State’s PTK chapter partnered with several local organizations to develop its HIA campaign, including Weiss Lake Improvement Association, Coosa Riverkeeper, Keep Etowah Beautiful, Inc. and Choccolocco Creek Watershed. With the help of local artist Kris Catoe and the college’s public relations department, students created visually captivating posters (complete with tips) to raise awareness throughout the community and inspire residents to consider their part in keeping the river clean. Students also created eye-catching stickers that they will distribute, all while gathering feedback as to how their efforts encourage others to implement positive change.
“I think it grows their leadership skills tremendously,” said Davis. “We want them to do those service projects. When I go and talk to [students] about joining, that’s my spill. You’re going to build leadership, you’re going to build service to give back to your community and it’s going to help with scholarships. If you stay in your comfort zone, you’re never going to get out there. Sometimes you need that little push.”
While in the past PTK students attended meetings and worked outside the classroom on HIA projects, Gadsden State now offers a class where students can receive college credit for their involvement with the society. PTK 299 provides students with a humanities credit to accompany the endless opportunities for volunteerism and service projects to ordain their resumes and mature as individuals. Although the class had six students the previous semester, Davis and Dunaway remain confident that combining the society with the class will build the chapter.
As the course’s instructor, Dunaway’s involvement with PTK began only a few months ago, but his desire to make a difference proves lifelong. When experienced PTK advisor and Student Support Services Director Davis learned of his English and Humanities background and flexible personality, she deemed Dunaway the missing piece to the puzzle.
“I was a musician, I was an activist,” said Dunaway. “I worked with the Lakota Indians on Pine Ridge on some social justice issues. I told my English students about it. Somehow, word got through the grapevine that I was an activist. All of a sudden, Melissa [Davis] and others reached out to me and said, ‘PTK would be a perfect thing for Mr. Dunaway.’”
Davis herself became acquainted with PTK several years ago prior to her position as SSS Director, when she assisted former SSS Director Dale Hill with the chapter. Since then, Davis’ dedication to her students as a mentor and encourager remains evident in the chapter’s success. Yet, perhaps the greatest glimmer of Davis’ contribution to PTK shines through her commitment to chapter members, with whom her care and support builds positive relationships both she and her students treasure long after their graduation.
“I have learned that there are a lot of amazing young people out in the world who have way better ideas than I do,” said Davis. “They just need an opportunity and an outlet to express those ideas. They can do way more than I can – I’m just here to guide them.”
While involvement with PTK secures millions of dollars in scholarships for students and establishes leadership skills in men and women nationwide, the education members gleam proves beneficial for life, rather than merely the workplace.
“I think that participation, particularly within society today, where you help other people is education unto itself,” said Dunaway. “It’s just as valuable as cracking open a book, if not more so. I think a lot of students are scared to take that initial step, but when they do, it seems it becomes something almost addictive, something that makes you feel good about yourself, other people and helps society. You kind of feed off that. I think students really benefit from a little help finding what they’re interested in, what their pathway is and how they can help society.”
Through the seeds they plant and their continuous example, Davis and Dunaway tend to the hope that flickers within students to achieve, dream and succeed while contributing to a cause greater than themselves. Davis and Dunaway cradle students’ passions with understanding and wisdom, channeling extraordinary ideas into effective realities and manifesting community-rooted campaigns to spark change for the better. With the friendships formed and the partnerships united, possibility comes alive in PTK as students realize their potential, building character and confidence, while discovering their purpose.
“Watching students grow and seeing them succeed is very rewarding,” said Davis. “That’s what inspires me to keep going. I’m very competitive and I want us to win when we do things, but that’s not what is most important at all. [What is most important] is what did they learn and the process. Even if it’s not something we learned about the subject we’re talking about…what did they learn about themselves? Did they learn they can be a leader? Was there no leader in the group and they rose up to be the leader? I see that time and time again.”
“I remember when I was hired full time, Dr. Lavender asked me what the greatest accomplishment was I ever made,” said Dunaway. “The answer is at the end of the semester to watch those students walk out the door and know they’re going to succeed, and you’ve made a difference in their lives. That is the ultimate accomplishment. That is the pinnacle for me.”
PTK membership requires a one-time enrollment fee of $70. Gadsden State students with a 3.5 GPA or higher will receive an invitation to join PTK. Davis recommends accepting the invitation immediately to ensure membership. For more information, contact Melissa Davis at 256-549-8383.