A passion for community-centered research among incoming William & Mary students helped triple this year’s enrollment in the Sharpe Community Scholars program, an innovative undergraduate living-learning community centered on engagement, social justice and collaborative research.

Housed within the Charles Center, the Sharpe Community Scholars program offers first-year students a four-credit, yearlong seminar facilitated by faculty mentors featuring community partner visits, research workshops, community-building social activities and communal living in Spotswood Hall.

Charles Center Director Elizabeth Harbron isn’t surprised by the recent dramatic increase in interest in the Sharpe Community Scholars program among first-year students.

“More and more high school seniors are seeking community-centered research opportunities as a part of their college experience, and they’re choosing William & Mary because the Sharpe program offers the kind of close-knit, personal mentorship that is so rare in other public universities our size,” Harbron said.

A person reads a book by a window
Kyle Lewis-Johnson ’25, a Sharpe Program Fellow, is a Chemistry major with a minor in Biochemistry. (Photo by Tess Willett)

Sharpe’s approach centers on community-based research, which offers avenues for students to connect meaningfully with members of their community and explore social dynamics and issues more critically.

“Sharpe scholars and faculty aim to build knowledge with and within communities, to develop collective capacity for addressing real-world concerns,” said Director of Engaged Scholarship and the Sharpe Community Scholars Program Monica Griffin ’88. “Sharpe is an important interdisciplinary portal for budding scholars whose interests in community and research are broad and still forming. It offers new students a community that is interested in big questions with community at the center.”

Charles Center Program Coordinator Maxwell Cloe ’20 echoed Griffin’s sentiment about introducing interdisciplinary and interactive research to new students.

“Especially in high school, and oftentimes at college levels, research is primarily pretty individualistic, often very solitary, and doesn’t often have broader ideological, political, social implications,” Cloe said. “I think my favorite part about Sharpe is that we place research in a position where it is something communal, it’s something that has an impact beyond academics and it’s something that necessitates input from people whose knowledge doesn’t necessarily come from academia — community members and people who have lived experiences of certain things.”

Other opportunities for Sharpe scholars include community partnerships and research apprenticeships with organizations such as the LGBTIQ Oral History Project, the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, the Lemon Project, W&M Civic & Community Engagement, the Bray School and Highland, the university-owned historic home of James Monroe in Charlottesville, Virginia.

After completion of the program, scholars can choose to apply for Sharpe summer research funding that provides a $3,000 stipend for seven full-time weeks of community and public service research with a faculty advisor.

A person sits at the bottom of a tree
Chemistry major and Sharpe Program Fellow Kaleea Korunka ’25 began researching housing eviction during her first year as a Sharpe Scholar. (Photo by Tess Willett)

Some former Sharpe Scholars choose to become Sharpe Program Fellows, acting as mentors for new cohorts of first-year Sharpe Scholars. Fellows receive academic mentorship, collaborate with Sharpe program staff to create programming, and support students throughout the year.

This year, there are seven Sharpe Program Fellows, including Kaleea Korunka ’25, a chemistry major who participated in Sharpe during her first year at W&M. Korunka began researching housing eviction during her first year, after taking a Sharpe seminar class with Associate Professor of Sociology Caroline Hanley. Korunka applied for a summer research grant that has helped her continue this work and found the Virginia Eviction Expungement Resource in the summer of 2022.

Korunka is currently serving in her second year as a Sharpe fellow and hopes to continue her role through graduation. She was inspired to become a mentor from her experience as a high school substitute teacher in her hometown during college breaks. Korunka mentioned that she often helps high school students with their college applications and has even guided some through the W&M and Sharpe application process.

“I’m trying to make sure they have as many opportunities that I certainly did not have,” Korunka said. “It was just really nice to continue being part of the community because I still get so much help and resources from Sharpe, which is just so fun. I get connected with people and experts that I would have never been able to, and just have opportunities that I would not have been able to have.”

One of the most important parts of Sharpe to Korunka is learning to engage in ethical, equitable research that centers community voices. Korunka said that she became conscious of her research techniques after hearing cautionary tales in science classes about researchers who did not act in ethical ways. She believes that community-centered research should be the standard.

 “It’s the only way to make sure it’s actually good research, because good research only comes from within the community itself,” Korunka said. “I think that our entire generation is so much more educated, and very lucky to be so. And part of that should be making sure research is equitable and fair, and actually comes from the community that it’s about.”

Korunka’s fellow Sharpe mentor Allison Thorne ’26 also feels as if Sharpe has given her a range of unexpected opportunities and friendships. In fact, Korunka acted as Thorne’s co-mentor alongside Sailor Miao ’24 during Thorne’s freshman year. She first decided to join Sharpe after realizing that she would be able to live within a community of likeminded people interested in research.

A person works on a computer while sitting as a table outdoors
Sharpe Program Fellow Jason Zheng ’26 is a double major in Public Policy and Sociology with a concentration in criminology, law, and society. (Photo by Tess Willett)

“Sharpe was a great experience for me,” Thorne said. “I got the opportunity to explore community research, a discipline that I hadn’t given much thought to before applying. I was also able to make close friends through the program and take classes I probably wouldn’t have taken without them being recommended to me as a Sharpe Scholar.”

Thorne has been able to foster many close friendships through the program and fondly remembers the kayaking trips on Lake Matoaka that Miao and Korunka would host for Thorne’s cohort of Sharpe Scholars. Like Korunka, Thorne also believes in the power of interactive, equitable research.

“I think it’s important to have a program that teaches and encourages community-based research.  It helps prevent the separation of academics and the real world; I like that it encourages people to incorporate their studies with real life,” Thorne said. “What you put into the program is what you will get out of it, much like college itself!”

Griffin’s favorite part about working with the Sharpe program is watching students grow their curiosity about various social issues and fostering their path to becoming active and responsible researchers who can then create change, hope and new questions within their communities.

“Knowledge is not bound by books or databases. Human ability to learn and use knowledge effectively depends greatly on our capacity to recognize the value and information available to us through relationships. Community-based research insists on attention to knowledge as it is formed in human relationships and collective action, all of which is grounded in geographic spaces, places, cultures, and histories,” Griffin said.

Cloe finds the various Sharpe workshops they coordinate with community members, historians, academics, and more among the most rewarding aspects of their role. For example, one workshop in 2022 included a tour of the Bray School prior to its relocation to Colonial Williamsburg that introduced students to community and interdisciplinary research on the building, including that of descendants of enslaved students, current W&M students, professional historians, archaeologists, Colonial Williamsburg interpreters, biologists and architects.

A person smiles for the camera while standing in front of a brick building
Sailor Miao ’24 is a Sharpe Program Fellow double majoring in Government and Hispanic Studies. (Photo by Tess Willett)

Sharpe’s graduate assistant, Kate Harrison, highlighted the value and importance of the special community that Sharpe scholars have built.

“For prospective Sharpe scholars, for those yearning for connection and meaningful research work, Sharpe is the place for you. In this program, scholars cultivate friendships, meaningful community connections, and their research interests. It is a place to challenge yourself to explore different disciplines and explore opportunities in the larger Williamsburg community,” Harrison said.

Griffin, who has been the program’s director since 2004, emphasized that those considering applying for Sharpe should be curious individuals who are willing to ask new and important questions.

“Give yourself the chance to ask your own questions, then find others with similar questions, goals, visions for the world you would like to see,” Griffin said. “Faculty experts, community leaders, and plenty others have questions that align with yours and are willing to find answers with you. Sharpe invites you to sit with your own curiosity in community with others for a while.”

For Korunka, Sharpe has been a support system and advocate for her throughout her college career. To potential new Sharpe Scholars, she emphasized the importance of having a community to help lift you up, especially during one’s first year.

“When you get to college, it’s like you’re thrown into a huge swimming pool and expected to swim,” Korunka said. “Just having Sharpe there to be the front line of people you could go to, even though you don’t know them well yet, their entire job is to be there and be your support system. That’s really great to have.”

The program began in the early 2000s with generous funding from Robert and Jane A. Sharpe. Robert remained a steadfast supporter of public service and obligation to community until his death in 2000.

According to Harbron, swelling enrollment in the Sharpe program is a sign of students’ increasing desire for a liberal arts & sciences education that cultivates community on campus and beyond by engaging with pressing issues through research and service.

“The Sharpes had a vision for this program and for William & Mary that included deep connections to the Williamsburg community,” Harbron said.  “Our first-year students arrive on campus with a desire to understand and change the world, and this program gives them a clear path to do both.”

Applications for the next cohort of Sharpe Scholars will open to incoming W&M students early in 2024.