A Summer of Learning and DoingCommunity Fellows at Local Non-Profits
Alyssa Vilela ’19 spent the summer running educational programs and tending gardens at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, an organic farming cooperative on the Vassar campus. Nnoema Njoku ’19 provided emergency food and other services for families in Poughkeepsie for Dutchess Outreach, a local not-for-profit agency. Conor Allerton ’18 surveyed residents in several Poughkeepsie neighborhoods to assess potential targets for improvement projects for Hudson River Housing, an agency involved in residential and commercial development in low-income areas of the city.
Vilela, Njoku, and Allerton were part of a team of Vassar students enrolled this summer in the college’s Community Fellows program. Now in its 20th year, the program matches students’ skills and interests with the needs of local not-for-profit agencies. Each of the students is paid a stipend by the college.
Lisa Kaul, director of Vassar’s Office of Community-Engaged Learning, says the program enables students to gain hands-on work experience while strengthening the college’s ties with the community. “While the program may be seen as a way for the college to ‘give back’ to the community, it is much more than that,” Kaul says. “For the students, the fellowship provides a rich and fertile learning opportunity. They learn practical skills, deal with real-life situations, and are called upon to solve real problems. They experience first hand many of the issues they have read about and discussed in the classroom and are able to put a human face on otherwise abstract concepts.”
Vilela, a Science, Technology and Society major from Bethel, NY, taught nutrition and farming skills to young people who visited the farm from summer camps and community centers. She says the experience enabled her to enhance some of the skills she had learned working at Vassar’s Infant and Toddler Care Center. “After that experience, I knew I wanted to continue to work with kids,” she says, “but the work I’m doing at the farm is more interactive and stimulating.”
Vilela’s tasks included giving her visitors a tour of the farm and preaching the importance of good nutrition. The sessions ended with a short class on how to prepare some of the products grown on the farm. “Sometimes, we made tea with mint, chamomile, raspberry leaves, or blueberries,” she says. “It’s great to see how excited the children are and how they want to share the recipes with their families.”
Vilela plans to pursue a career in medicine and says learning about nutrition and the use of medicinal plants and herbs “has given me a more holistic view of the profession. It’s something I will definitely incorporate in my practice.”
Njoku, a philosophy major from Atlanta, GA, learned about Dutchess Outreach from fellow students who had done field work there. “I saw this job as a chance to learn more about Poughkeepsie, and I had done volunteer work in high school running clothing drives and working in a soup kitchen, and I wanted to continue that,” she says.
Njoku started every day working in the agency’s emergency food pantry, an experience she found genuinely rewarding. “One day a man with a family of seven came in asking for food, and when I gave it to him, he became quite emotional,” Njoku says. “As he was leaving, he gave me a big hug, and I thought, ‘Yes, this organization is definitely making a difference in this community.’”
Njoku says those moments of satisfaction are sometimes tempered by frustration. “There are many times when I wish we could do more,” she says. “The system has trapped a lot of families in poverty.”
Allerton, an urban studies major from New York City, also met many Poughkeepsie residents who are struggling economically. He interviewed residents in a 28-block area on the north side of Poughkeepsie about the condition of their neighborhoods. One of Allerton’s main tasks was cataloguing vacant buildings and vacant land to help the Hudson River Housing staff identify properties that are best suited for renovation or new construction. “This was the culmination of a project that had started more than a year ago, and it was gratifying to hand in my final report,” he says. “I’ll be interested to see what happens to those properties.”
Allerton also spent part of his time soliciting opinions from city residents on what programs they would like to see offered in a now-vacant building on Main Street that Hudson River Housing recently acquired. “I developed an open-ended questionnaire and distributed it to more than 100 people,” he says. “The majority of those who responded said they’d like to see more recreational programs for their kids. Many of them cited the closing of the Poughkeepsie YMCA several years ago and said they’d like to see something fill that void.”
Allerton says his summer job was an ideal extension of his course work as an urban studies major. “This was real work benefiting real people, and that’s something you can’t do in an urban studies class,” he says.
Other Community Fellows are James Boyd ’19, an urban studies major from Mashpee, MA; Gino Ruiz ’19, an international studies major from Brooklyn; and Enellie Mikel ’19, a psychological science and educational studies double major from the Bronx.
Boyd spent the bulk of the summer working on a fundraising campaign for Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, a grass-roots community-organizing group. Ruiz mentored young people engaged in film and video work at two local arts organizations, Spark Media Project and Mill Street Loft. Mikel spent the summer writing grant applications for REAL Skills Network, a not-for-profit agency that provides educational, arts, and recreational activities for at-risk children in Poughkeepsie. Previously, Mikel had volunteered at REAL Skills during the school year. “Being a Community Fellow has given me the opportunity to continue this work in the summer,” Mikel says. “My life here in Poughkeepsie is no longer centered around Vassar but around this organization that has worked with the community in amazing ways for 11 years and served more than 10,000 children. I’ve come to care for REAL Skills as my home.”