In 1981 the Ringling College Library Association had an idea to raise funds – bring in a series of some of the most noteworthy speakers from across the world to the Sarasota Audience and charge a subscription to come hear them speak. Starting from humble beginnings out of the Sarasota High School Auditorium, the Ringling Town Hall Lectures Series now reigns out of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and has become one of the largest series of its kind in the country.
Spanning over a few months a year, the programming brings in a mix of speakers on topics ranging from politics, education, science, nature, pop culture, and many more subjects. Attendees have heard from noteworthy politicians like former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, esteemed minds like Dr. Charles Krauthammer and Sir Ken Robinson, notable journalists like Charlie Rose and Walter Isaacson, as well as documentarian Ken Burns.
Eight years ago, the idea was brought up about how to best leverage the impact of these notable speakers coming into town. While many residents were able to afford the opportunity to hear from some of history’s’ greats, there was one audience that was missing: students. The Community Foundation of Sarasota County decided to partner with the Ringling College Library Association and the Sarasota County School District to create the RCLA Town Hall Scholars program, which created the opportunity for the region’s outstanding student leaders to hear diverse ideas and opinions and learn about the world around them.
Thanks to this partnership, principals from 14 different high schools in Sarasota and Manatee counties personally select the best and brightest students from their senior classes to attend one of the Town Hall Lectures, and the Community Foundation underwrites all the tickets so that nothing comes out of the students’ or schools’ pockets.
Even more unique about the opportunity is that each student is afforded the opportunity to meet backstage with each speaker before the lecture. Students are able to ask a number of personal or professional questions to the speakers to help guide them on their own academic journey. It’s often a mutually beneficial experience, with many of the speakers giving feedback about how they enjoyed the experience of meeting some of the most outstanding students in Florida.
“On top of having an unforgettable experience meeting the speakers, one of the special aspects of this program is that the students who attend a lecture are eligible to apply for an RCLA Town Hall Scholarship,” says Earl Young, Manager of Scholarships and Special Initiatives at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. “Each year, thanks to a partnership with donors Lou and Rosemary Oberndorf, the Community Foundation awards $30,000 in college scholarships to fifteen Town Hall Scholars a year. The competitive scholarship is judged by an essay each student writes about their experience meeting and hearing from the lecturers.”
“On top of having an unforgettable experience meeting the speakers, one of the special aspects of this program is that the students who attend a lecture are eligible to apply for an RCLA Town Hall Scholarship.”
Since the program began in 2010, more than 900 local high school seniors have had the opportunity to attend the lecture series, and 104 of those have been awarded scholarships.
Katherine Herbert, a Booker High School senior, was recently able to see actress and author Ali Wentworth at the closing lecture of the 2018 series on Monday. “It ended up being so much more than I expected,” says Herbert. “I went in expecting a typical, dry educational session, but the opportunity to meet Ali was such an extremely positive experience and she was so much fun. I felt like I got to learn a lot.” When prompted about whether she’d compete for the essay scholarship, Herbert says “I got into the Juilliard School. Juilliard is really expensive. I’m definitely looking forward to the essay prompts.”