Purposeful Partnership: The Tarboro Robertson Community Summer

In late fall of 2016, the board of the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program decided to add a Community Summer site in rural North Carolina for the summer of 2017. That left just months to research, make connections, and work out the logistical details of a partnership that would send five Robertson Scholars to Tarboro for eight weeks over the summer. Fast forward 12 months. Students, staff and community members are thrilled with the new partnership and eager to continue learning from one another in future years.

The behind-the-scenes work that culminated in this successful Community Summer is a remarkable example of intentional partnership and community collaboration.

Following their first year in the program, Robertson Scholars spend the summer participating in community-based internships across the southeast United States. These “Community Summers” are intended to build a sense of community among Scholars as they live and work together; they also immerse the Scholars in a new place and encourage reflection about the strengths and challenges of various regions. The Summer Programs director, Vicki Stocking, emphasizes that she and her colleagues don’t “just drop students in to ‘fix a problem.’” The Community Summer, she explains, is really an opportunity “to learn about capacity, not just problems.”

This past summer in Tarboro, Scholars had abundant opportunities to learn about capacity, as they were supervised and mentored by a passionate, committed group of community members in the Eastern North Carolina Internship Program (ENCIP) Board. The process of arriving at this new Community Summer location was a combination of extraordinary organization and preparation on the Tarboro end and thoughtful, intentional research on the Robertson end.

When the Robertson Scholars Board first determined that a Community Summer site should be added in rural N.C., Stocking recognized the importance of conducting good research to determine the right fit, especially under a tight timeline. As the Robertson team investigated several other possible locations, she carefully considered the existing infrastructure, the community priorities, and the level of synchrony between the timelines and needs of the community versus those of the Robertson Program. They were in search of a location that not only had the enthusiasm and infrastructure to support an internship program, but one in which the goals and visions aligned well with programmatic goals. Stocking highlights the importance of maintaining a partnership model that focuses on sustainability and coordination, noting that “Although the Scholar experience is our top goal, that should never come at the expense of the community.”

When the Robertson team met with a group of community leaders in Tarboro, everything aligned and they knew they had found the right location. Stocking refers to Tarboro as “an easy yes,” because the all-volunteer members of the ENCIP Board cared so deeply about their community and were so eager to host a group of student interns that they had already created the infrastructure and learning opportunities to host such a program. The visit from the Robertson team was the final piece of their own puzzle.

From the Tarboro perspective, the story had actually begun several years earlier, when Caroline Leland, a UNC Class of 2015 Robertson Scholar from Tarboro began to prepare for her own Community Summer. Knowing that the program was sending Scholars to various rural locations throughout the southeast U.S., her father, Bill Leland, wondered, “Why not Tarboro?” Clearly, he thought, eastern North Carolina provided just as ripe an environment for such a program as any other location. Although the Robertson Program was not expanding at the time, Vicki Stocking and Caroline Leland talked at length about what makes a good internship for bright college students. From there, Caroline Leland began to construct an internship program for her hometown, in the hopes that eventually all the pieces would come together to host student interns.

As she began laying the foundation for this program, Caroline Leland drew both from her conversations with Stocking and from her involvement with the Carolina Center for Public Service, where she was gaining a deeper understanding of what it takes to forge a true community partnership. She transmitted this knowledge to the ENCIP board, which Bill Leland had coalesced in the meanwhile, and together they began working on how best to support undergraduate student interns. What resulted was a model that was “even better than what we already had,” according to Stocking. The internships matched the needs of the community, had been designed by the community leaders themselves, and built in multiple layers of mentorship and reflection, pairing the students with an internship supervisor and a board mentor.

The structure and intentionality provided by the ENCIP Board stands out as a unique asset of the Tarboro site, and Stocking recalls that “the connection of all of these people was stunning.” The board had a deep sense of ownership of the program, which provided fertile ground for genuine relationship-building. Beyond the traditional educational component of the internships, Caroline Leland observed that it was also a valuable cultural experience; the Scholars experienced aspects of life in Eastern N.C. that they had never encountered before, being from other regions. The ENCIP Board was eager to introduce the Scholars to their town and their enthusiasm spread through the entire community, as the Scholars received one of the warmest community-wide welcomes that Stocking has seen in a Community Summer placement. Bill Leland sums up community sentiment about the students, saying, “We don’t just want them to come here and work, we want them to come and belong.”

Early reactions to this new Community Summer site have been overwhelmingly positive from all perspectives. The Tarboro Robertson Scholars firmly believe that they had the best internship location, and Tarboro community members greatly enjoyed the energy and sense of purpose brought by the Scholars. Stocking recently met with the ENCIP Board for a joint evaluation meeting and all parties are eager to continue to learn and grow together. “If we believe our community organizations are partners,” she says, “we have to communicate, be aware of each other’s values, and know how we fit into one another’s institutional goals.”