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Whitman receives $800,000 Mellon grant to diversify curriculum

Whitman College has received a three-year, $800,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The grant will help Whitman infuse diverse perspectives into the curriculum and promote community engagement with an emphasis on the humanities, the focus of the foundation.

"I'm really pleased with this award, as it is a result of several months of deep discussion, debate and collaboration among many faculty, staff and college administrators," said Rachna Sinnott, director of grants and foundation relations. "We all worked together to create a program that will provide exciting new learning opportunities for students and faculty." 

Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations John Bogley '85 echoed her praise. "This success of this grant application is a testament to the collaborative work among faculty and staff who participated in developing the grant proposal's key components," he said. "The Mellon Foundation is highly selective in its consideration of grant requests. At every step, they asked good questions and provided strong support for the programmatic elements of the proposal."  

The initiative builds on the success of Whitman's Diversity Innovation Grants, which were made possible by a Mellon Foundation New Presidents Grant and supported scholarly and community-based projects in the areas of diversity and inclusion. The goal of this latest grant is to broaden students' perspectives by providing a variety of high-impact community experiences tied to the academic program.  

"By exploring diversity in the context of the larger world beyond Whitman, we expand and complicate the understanding of diversity we might have built only in an on-campus context," said Provost and Dean of the Faculty Alzada Tipton. "And by being more involved in the community in the academic arena of the college, we help students see the connections between what they are studying and what they might do in the world after graduation." 

According to Lisa Perfetti, associate dean for faculty development, "This grant allows us to develop a range of new learning approaches that can be brought into our classrooms, approaches that help students to see how concepts they are learning in their courses can enable them to better understand and engage with contemporary issues they care about. The grant will also help to facilitate more sharing of ideas among faculty who have common interests in community-based learning, bring new faculty into the conversation and provide a mechanism for building long-term relationships that meet needs identified as priorities by our partners." 

Examples of existing collaborations between the college and community include the Mentor Program with Walla Walla Public Schools and Adopt-a-Grandparent with Odd Fellows retirement home. Scores of Whitties have also pitched in at nonprofits such as The Health Center, Commitment to Community and Children's Home Society. The grant strengthens Whitman's Student Engagement Center so that it can also provide support to faculty in their development of community partnerships and community-based learning courses.  

"Students tell us over and over that opportunities to be involved in the Walla Walla Valley benefit their intellectual, their personal and their professional growth," said Noah Leavitt, director of the Student Engagement Center. "Hundreds of them leave campus each week to participate in internships, school-based tutoring programs, research initiatives and civic engagement projects, and they return to us with new ways of asking questions about and trying to make sense of what they're learning on campus." 

One possible model for pairing community engagement with academics draws inspiration from Whitman's popular Semester in the West program. Instead of traveling across the American West, however, Whitties would remain in the community taking clusters of classes across different departments on issues of local significance, such as homelessness or migration. Another option might mean students attending classes on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Whitman signed a memorandum of understanding with the tribes last May, committing to collaborate more on indigenous studies while bolstering Native American recruitment and retention at Whitman. Students would also complete community-based projects. 

"Our core mission here is education," said Jason Pribilsky, professor of anthropology and interdisciplinary studies and Division I representative. "Public scholarship is something that this grant can really help foster for us." Pribilsky is currently teaching a class called Anthropologies of Cancer, where students visit the oncology center at Providence St. Mary to learn about late diagnosis and screening in the Latino community, among other topics. He hopes to open up Whitman's curriculum to more knowledge exchanges with local experts. 

"To me, it's a no-brainer," he added. "I'm an anthropologist, so everything I do is community-based. And there's no more important time than right now, when we live in this moment of alt-facts and fake news—students need to know how to translate ideas into ways to speak to wide audiences." 

Learn more about the role of grants at Whitman.

Published on Mar 1, 2018
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