The Honors College at the University of Houston - University of Houston
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How do you move a service-learning program online?


By Trinity Rinear


As we are all painfully aware, fall 2020 – and most of 2020 for that matter – was not what we expected due to the pandemic.  Our sincere wish for everyone reading this post is for you and your family to remain safe and healthy, and here is hoping that 2021 is a better year.  Despite the momentous challenges faced by everyone worldwide, Bonner carried on in the face of adversity.  We were confronted with the maddening paradox that while need in our community skyrockets, we find ourselves limited in our ability to respond due to several factors beyond our control, including restrictions on in-person gatherings. Even still, our Bonner students remained committed to their community, their education, and to each other, and we are excited to share all what they accomplished in Fall 2020 and how they transitioned their service work online and to new formats. In addition, Bonner administration transferred all learning and development activities online, and we had to adapt to a drastically new method of teaching and training our students.

SMART mentors putting supply bags together

Key changes to service and learning


Though our food insecurity work remained largely in-person this fall, all education work moved online for the duration of the fall semester, and it will remain mostly, if not entirely, virtual this spring. Our talented student executive leadership teams spent the latter half of the summer adapting their curriculum and programming to a virtual format using Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or Google Meets, anticipating new challenges in a world of virtual learning, and collaborating with their partners to develop effectively modified programs. These teams produced updated business plans for their projects detailing their mission, operations, budget, etc., and they remained committed to quality service during an unprecedented semester.

Austin Test Prep (ATP) and ImpACT, our two college preparatory programs, partnered with Stephen F. Austin High School, Breakthrough Houston, and KIPP Sunnyside High School to prepare under-resourced and disadvantaged students at each school and program for their college entrance exams (SAT and ACT). Bonner college mentors also assisted students and their families through the college application and financial aid process. In the fall, though challenged by the new virtual environment and the compounded difficulty of securing student attention and sustained attendance, the projects effectively prepared a small number of students for the SAT and ACT exams, and they will move to more college application and essay workshop activities this spring. After learning much from their previous semester of online service, both ATP and ImpACT expect to serve roughly 25-25 students at each of their respective partner schools and organizations – Austin High, KIPP Sunnyside, KIPP Houston, and Breakthrough Houston – using their new curriculum and online tools.


Science Mentoring for a Richer Tomorrow (SMART) also moved their operations online, meeting with their fifth-grade science students over Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Traditionally, SMART mentors guide their students through science experiments and interactive activities in the classroom. Prior to the fall semester, the SMART team purchased and bagged up individual supply packets for parent pick up so that their students could perform the science experiments planned for SMART from their own homes, and mentors carried out their lesson plans virtually. The SMART team also banded together behind our wonderful community partner Ms. Sara Rodriguez at Shearn Elementary School, raising funds for the purchase of dividing screens, masks, hand sanitizer, and other protective equipment to keep her classroom safe. SMART will continue to operate virtually in the spring and will work to meet newly discovered challenges in student access to technology, reliable internet, and focused time at home.

WISE project Zoom meeting

Our fourth education project, Writing to Inspire Successful Education (WISE), also transitioned to entirely virtual tutoring and mentoring with students from Briscoe Elementary School, and they adapted their programming significantly because of the effects of COVID-19 on their students. Due to the pandemic, last year’s 4th grade WISE students (and indeed, the entire grade level across the state) were unable to take their STARR writing exam, so project leadership made the decision to follow these students to the 5th grade to continue to prepare them for the former Writing STAAR and their 5th grade Reading STAAR. WISE’s goal this spring semester is to achieve a 100% passing rate for their 5th grade students on a mock 4th grade writing STAAR, in addition to preparing students for their grade-level reading exam.

FIT students at food distribution site

Our Food Insecurity Team (FIT) underwent a similar process of adapting to a new dynamic of service as their former food-for-change pantries were converted into disaster food distribution sites through the Houston Food Bank, targeted at addressing existing and emerging hunger needs caused by the pandemic. At our Riverside Methodist Church (RMC) location, Bonner students effectively partnered with our community organizations, RMC and the Houston Food Bank, to run effective and safe drive-by trunk food drops for Houston community members three times a month. In addition, FIT conducted several one-time events with the Food Bank, RMC, and the University of Houston, including: Backpack Buddies, a distribution of food and school supplies to 160 families HISD; LEAD Houston’s distribution site which served food and school supplies to roughly 500 HISD families; and Share the Holidays, another similar food distribution project for Houston community members hosted at RMC. This team has stepped up in a time of great need, and we are proud of the work they were able to sustain in an effort to meet just a small portion of the severe and growing food insecurity in Houston.


In the fall, Bonner staff conducted our regular training and development meetings online over Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and we underwent a crash-course on adapting these meetings and other learning opportunities to an online format.

For our regular internal meetings, Bonner administration developed a series of virtual seminars and discussions which addressed the first of our nine key student learning objectives: critical thinking, teamwork, emotional intelligence, effective communication, and ethical decision making. (The remaining learning objectives, to be covered in the spring, are problem solving, social responsibility, and cultural competency. Civic engagement, our ninth learning outcome, is targeted by all program activities.) In addition, we continued to host a short series of seminars on leadership theory and practice.

Taking advantage of our new virtual world, we invited several guest speakers and alumni to present to our students, and we urged more students to lead huddles than ever before. Our guest speakers included Dr. Allon Friedman on the developing COVID-19 pandemic, and Dr. Ben Rayder from the Office of Undergraduate Research and Major Awards on framing your personal narrative. Bonner alumni led three meetings on diverse topics including a graduate school informational panel, tips for work-life balance, and an attempt to illuminate the scary mysteries of successful “adulting.” In addition, our students led huddles on an introduction to community health, and new food insecurity challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, and our partners at New Hope Housing spoke to our students about affordable housing challenges and policies in Houston.



Though the lack of in-person gatherings makes maintaining morale and a strong learning community difficult, every chance to see our students and learn from each other and our communities contributed to the advancement of student learning and leadership development. We are grateful for the technology to continue to meet and serve virtually, as we will continue to do this spring. As the pandemic and the new year march on, Bonner remains committed to its mission of alleviating poverty and improving life in our Houston community, and to the development of critically thinking, socially responsible citizens who will continue to serve their communities, wherever they end up.



  • Students serving at the Share Your Holiday event

    Students serving at the Share Your Holiday event

  • Students smiling at camera

    Bonner mentor meeting with new student for a socially distanced walk