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ESSAY FEATURE: A Legacy of Service


Established by the late Robert “Bobby” Dobson III (’60, ’62 J.D.), the Dobson Volunteer Service Program has touched lives on campus and around the world for more than 20 years. Since funding its first student trip in 1999, the program has supported more than 1,300 student trips to 60 countries on five continents.

By Hilary Dyer Brannon

Born and raised in Greenville, Bobby Dobson came to the University of South Carolina in 1956, played varsity tennis and was an active member of Kappa Sigma Fraternity. After graduating from the School of Law in 1962, he returned to Greenville to work alongside his father in the family’s law firm.

Leaving his legal practice shortly after the sudden loss of his daughter, Laura, in 1991, Dobson chose to devote his life to sharing his Christian faith through service and philanthropy. He created the Dobson Volunteer Service Program to encourage the spiritual and value development of students while providing assistance to individuals, families and communities in need. Dobson passed away in August 2019, leaving behind a legacy of spiritual growth, humanitarian aid and student development.

The only program of its kind at the university, the DVSP funds up to $50,000 for student service trips every year. Students participating in service that includes a component of spiritual development can apply to the program to receive funding to cover up to 50 percent of the cost of travel, food and lodging.

“Without the DVSP, we literally could not have done the service and trips that we do,” said the Rev. Tom Wall of the Methodist Student Network. “When students graduate, they often tell me that the service/mission trips they have been on have done more to aid them in their maturation and their personal and spiritual growth than almost anything else they have experienced in college.”

Operationally managed by the Department of Student Life, the program finds a natural fit with the department’s vision of providing opportunities for every student to define a unique involvement story that prepares them to lead and serve as engaged global citizens. Composed of university faculty and staff members and Dobson family members, the Dobson Volunteer Service Board meets multiple times each year to review applications and make funding decisions.

“I have had the honor of working with a number of wonderful people at UofSC over the past 20 years,” said board member and Bobby Dobson’s daughter-in-law, Shannon Dobson (’89, ’93 M.A., ’99 Ph.D.). “From the beginning, Jerry Brewer met with us every semester to expand the program and bring it to as many students as possible,” she says. “Now, Anna Edwards is filling that role and is passionate and enthusiastic about providing this opportunity to students. In addition to their leadership, Janie Kerzan and her staff take care of the nuts and bolts of applications and finances.”

“I believe that this program changes lives and grants students the opportunity to serve in communities that most desperately need it,” says Edwards, associate vice president for Student Life. “I have had the opportunity to serve on the Dobson board for about two years. During past board meetings, Mr. Dobson would identify a few students to meet with him to talk about their experiences or the impact the service had on them. It was very rewarding to hear the students reflect, specifically speaking to how they have changed as individuals because of the graciousness of Mr. Dobson’s donations. The students were always very appreciative and often spoke to the fact that the opportunity would not have been possible without the Dobson Volunteer Service Program.” 

The board is prepared to carry the program into the future, building upon the solid foundation created by its namesake and adding to an admirable record of assisting communities in need while simultaneously offering students financial support and educational opportunities outside the walls of a traditional classroom.

While trips must have a spiritual complement, they do not have to be tied to a particular religion.

Participants and program proposals come from a wide range of individuals, organizations and units on campus. The Division of Student Affairs and Academic Support has seen students, faith-based organizations and academic programs alike benefit from the DVSP.

“I have been leading medical service-learning trips for the Capstone Scholars Program for the past 10 years, and each year that I have done so I have encouraged my students to apply for ‘the Dobson,’” says Patrick Hickey, faculty principal of the Capstone Scholars Program. “I have been able to see how valuable this scholarship is as it supports my students as they render care to underserved populations. For most students it is a humbling experience that changes them, and for most it helps to confirm for them their future path in life: helping those who cannot care for themselves.”

“Mr. Dobson wanted to make serving the broader community accessible to all students so that they could be changed by giving to others and other communities in need,” Edwards says. “One of the requirements of using Dobson funds for service is that students are required to reflect on their trip and consider the impact of their time not only on those they serve, but also on themselves.”

Requirements upon returning from a service trip include a written reflection and a minimum of 10 presentations to university students, civic and religious groups and local schools.

“I can’t count how many times a student would tell us about people in far-flung nations without food or the necessities of life and how they were able to help at least on that day on that trip to give them hope and a sense that other people care about them,” Shannon Dobson says. “Many of their trips changed the trajectory of their career plans and life philosophies of the students. Having them reorient their careers and lives to a purpose where serving others becomes a central part of their life goals regardless of their career intentions is worth the time and effort of this program.”

This deliberate contemplation and requisite outreach also lend to the special character of the DVSP. These requirements ensure the growth experienced does not stay within one person, but continues to be shared and multiplies in impact, which is at the core of the program’s mission.

“My hope for these students is that they learn that they can do something to make this world a better place,” Shannon Dobson says, “and that going to those places will help them learn what is needed."

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