Benedictine College ‘Freedom Fellows’ Combine Martin Luther King Jr.’s Vision With Catholic Education

Program aims to create a Catholic vision of diversity on campus and empower students to be the first in their family to receive a college education and become leaders.

Benedictine College aims to immerse participating student in a program that forms them spiritually and morally.
Benedictine College aims to immerse participating student in a program that forms them spiritually and morally. (photo: Courtesy of Benedictine College)

ATCHISON, Kan. — Benedictine College’s new “Freedom Fellows” are on a mission to transform American culture through immersing themselves in the vision of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the liberal arts college’s Catholic formation of the whole person.

With the Freedom Fellows program, Benedictine College aims to give full-ride scholarships to six first-generation college students in each incoming class and immerse them in a program that forms them spiritually and morally, develops them professionally, and teaches them to mentor the next generation of youth. 

“We’re taking a deep dive into the philosophy of King and his theology as a basis of understanding really how to reach across lines of society and engage people in meaningful conversations and interactions,” Tyler Shephard, Benedictine’s director of student support who oversees the program, told the Register. 

While many Americans are familiar with King as a civil-rights icon and martyr, King was also a pastor and theologian whose powerful oratory called for the U.S. to become a humane society with racial equality and economic justice for all its members securely founded on love.

Benedictine College designed the program with the view that it would empower students from families with low incomes that never went to college, regardless of their race, and form them to be leaders in their communities in the mold of King and the context of Benedictine’s Catholic education. 

Most of Benedictine’s Freedom Fellows are expected to be students of color, given that 20th-century U.S. policies that denied African-Americans and other non-European ethnic groups access to educational and wealth-building opportunities on account of their race led to white Americans having much higher college attendance. 

However, the Freedom Fellows program design also enables all Americans from low-income families that never went to college to take advantage of the program and become immersed in the teachings of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 

And the students piloting the Freedom Fellows program this year reflect that racial diversity. 

Shephard, a 2019 Benedictine graduate who is African American, explained that the Freedom Fellows program is “at its core an academic and service program” that offers not only a greater sense of inclusion on campus, but teaches students how to engage others in dialogue respectfully, underscoring the dignity of the human person. 

The Freedom Fellows meet once a week for group meetings that focus on reading and discussing King’s theological works and making oral presentations that hone students’ rhetorical skills. 

The Freedom Fellows also meet one-on-one with Shephard, who serves as a secondary guidance counselor, in addition to their academic adviser, with a focus on developing their whole person and helping them resolve challenges along the way. 

Freedom Fellows 2
| Courtesy of Benedictine College

Students engage in Bible study every week and work closely with campus ministry. While they are invited to Mass, not all Freedom Fellows are Catholic, and so the school connects non-Catholic Freedom Fellows to area pastors for their continued spiritual formation.

The program also allows Freedom Fellows to join a six-to-seven-week internship in Boston with the Seymour Institute called the Martin Luther King Summer Scholars program, where they will learn an educational curriculum over the course of a week and then teach it to youth over the summer. 

Shephard explained that Benedictine plans to create a three-to-four week summer program built on this model for Atchison. And throughout the year, Freedom Fellows will also mentor high-school youth in Atchison, inspiring them to pursue dreams of college and beyond.

“We’re looking at this as a way to spread the vision and values we have on [Benedictine’s] campus to the world,” he said.

Payton Neal, a junior studying psychology at Benedictine, is one of six students currently piloting Benedictine College’s Freedom Fellows program. 

“My experience in the program so far has been really good,” she said.

Neal, an African-American woman, said she is particularly looking forward to the internship component and the opportunity to share King’s emphasis on Christianity’s “agape love” to transform society. 

Neal said the program has already helped her overcome natural shyness, and the five-minute presentations they do weekly strengthened her confidence to speak with audiences on a topic. “For me, that was a weak point,” she said. Neal said Shephard’s confidence in the Freedom Fellows has helped them reach new heights. “[Shephard] pushes you to grow in areas you never thought you would.”

Obediah Lewis, a 19-year-old sophomore and business manager, told the Register that the Freedom Fellows recently hosted high-school students from Newark, New Jersey, as well as international students who were visiting Benedictine. 

“We really had an opportunity to dive in, be there for the kids, and be a mentor to them for that time,” he said. 

Lewis, who heads the Black Student Union on campus, said the Freedom Fellows program and Benedictine’s Catholic education are providing him a formation lasting well beyond college. “This program is teaching me great leadership skills, so I can mentor and be there for others, and life lessons through the books we’re reading,” he said. 

Soloman Wallace, a junior and management major, who, like Lewis, is also African American, told the Register that the faith life and community has helped him grow in his faith as a Christian. 

He said the Freedom Fellows program has “allowed me to grow in a variety of ways,” particularly in developing public-leadership skills. Wallace, 21, said he was really affected by learning King’s teachings on “agape love” and how to live that out in society. According to Stanford University’s King Institute, King defined agape love as “the love of God operating in the human heart,” and it animated his vision of social change through nonviolence. In one address, he said, “When we rise to love on the agape level, we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but we love them because God loves them.”

“I really enjoy the intentional dialogue we have with what we’re reading,” Wallace said. Conversations reflect the program’s principles of “communion, conversation, commitment, care for God’s creation, and courage.” He added: “Implementing all those values has allowed me to grow as a person.” 

Joseph Wurtz, Benedictine’s dean of students, told the Register that the “Transforming Culture in America” plan is Benedictine College’s vision for achieving generational change through its students and alumni, making an impact all over the United States. And he credited Tyler Shephard with creating the Freedom Fellows component.

“This is a 40-year vision,” Wurtz said. The strategic vision has four main components: student formation; ongoing alumni formation; establishing eight centers to extend the college’s mission (among them the Center for Constitutional Liberty, the Center for the Family, and the Center for Beauty and Culture); and capital projects to expand Benedictine’s academic excellence. 

Benedictine College President Stephen Minnis told the Register that the “Transforming Culture in America” vision came out of two years of meetings with Benedictine’s board of directors, faculty and community leaders. The plan models the Catholic Church’s vision — not the secular world’s vision — for true diversity and inclusion and is expected to attract students from a diverse range of ethnic groups to the college. 

“Our first priority says, ‘The global Catholic Church which embraces the world’s races and cultures is our model for diversity.’ The Freedom Fellows is a great way for us to make our college look more like the global Catholic Church, two-thirds of whose members are people of color,” Minnis said. “We are really excited about the caliber of first-generation college students we are meeting through this program.”

At the same time, Wurtz explained, the program helps the college work closely with first-generation college students so they successfully complete the four years of undergraduate education.

“We want to say to first-generation students who are underresourced that Benedictine is a home for you,” Wurtz said. “We’re a hospitable community that will support you and launch you successfully through our mission of community, faith and scholarship.”

Wurtz said most of the six Benedictine students who piloted the program this academic year have already shown an increase in academic and personal excellence, and the college is already in the midst of interviewing applications for its first freshmen class of Freedom Fellows. “It is evident in every one of these students, who are first generation — some of whom have parents that moved to the U.S. just a few years ago — that there is a strong faith, a strong familial connection, and a strong desire to give back,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing to witness. They have all these strong qualities, and we just hope to take them to the next level.”