Throughout the school year, hundreds of Vassar students venture off-campus, tutoring children in local schools and volunteering for non-profit agencies that combat poverty or address domestic violence and other social issues. It’s meaningful work, but the time constraints facing all full-time college students place significant limits on how much they can contribute to the community.
Every summer, Vassar’s Community Fellows program provides a way for some students to take this work to another level by placing them in full-time jobs with not-for-profit organizations. Now in its 21st year, the program matches students’ skills and interests with the needs of the 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. “In an age where information is at everyone’s fingertips, the role of institutions of higher education has changed,” Kaul says. “Students no longer come to college to only learn content material. They come to learn how to think, to analyze information, to articulate questions, to be challenged and to problem solve. And what better way to do this than to engage with real-world issues? In Vassar speak, the Community Fellows program allows our students to ‘go to the source.’”
Cecilia Bobbitt ’19, who engaged with victims of domestic violence at the Center for Victim Safety and Support, said the work she did this summer had altered her perspective on life. “It was inspiring to be making a contribution to the community outside Vassar’s gates,” Bobbitt said. “And it was empowering to be part of the Community Fellows cohort, trading stories about our work and linking with a lot of networks in the community.”
Bobbitt was one of seven Vassar students who made significant contributions to six local agencies. Following are brief reports on their work:
Ezra Weissman: Hudson River Housing, Inc.
Weissman, an Urban Studies major from Atlanta, GA, spent the bulk of his time connecting with local residents and business owners through Hudson River Housing’s Middle Main Initiative, which provides financial advice and assistance to residents and business owners in Poughkeepsie’s Main Street neighborhoods. One key accomplishment was planning and overseeing a meeting he conducted, entirely in Spanish, with Hispanic business owners. Weissman hosted the meeting, fielding the business owners’ questions and soliciting their suggestions for how funds collected through assessments by the Middle Main Initiative ought to be spent. Some of the money will support improvements to the business owners’ websites and provide them with other digital marketing tools. “It was great to have an idea and see it through and see tangible results, to provide a platform for these business owners to express their views and concerns,” he said.
Weissman also helped promote “Friday Fest,” a weekly event at Poughkeepsie’s Mural Square that features local musicians and spotlights food from vendors who use a community kitchen at Hudson River Housing’s Underwear Factory facility. And he encouraged the agency’s administrators to write guidelines that support transgender employees. The agency held a training session on the issue and updated its employee handbook to reflect this support.
“I was empowered by Hudson River Housing’s response to my concerns about issues affecting transgender individuals in the workplace and by all of the work I did this summer,” he said. “I’ve developed reciprocal relationships with many people downtown, and they’ve taught me so much, giving me opportunities to learn outside the classroom setting.”
Gabrielle Chwae: Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson
Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, founded by Vassar alums in the wake of the 2008 recession, addresses housing needs and other financial issues facing Poughkeepsie residents. Chwae, a Russian Studies and International Studies double major from Cottage Grove, WI, spearheaded two major initiatives: a fundraising effort and a successful campaign to provide undocumented immigrants with municipal identification cards that will help them obtain employment and other resources.
“The fundraiser was the shortest and the biggest we ever had,” Chwae said. “We raised $85,000 in six days.”
Chwae made a presentation advocating for the municipal ID cards at a public hearing on the proposal, and the city council unanimously approved the measure in July. “It was gratifying to see the tangible results of our work,” she said. “The ID cards will help a lot of people, and the money we raised means we can hire a new staff person, with full benefits, that will enable us to expand our work.”
Josephine Lovejoy ’19 and Christiana Prater-Lee ’19: Mediation Center of Dutchess County
Prater-Lee, a Mathematics and Sociology major from Poughkeepsie, collaborated with the Mediation Center’s Restorative Justice Coordinator, Claudia Abbott-Barish, addressing issues affecting at-risk youth and others in the community. Prater-Lee used her math background to analyze the results of a survey the agency had conducted on the effectiveness of the program.
She learned first-hand how engaged a group of Poughkeepsie school students were in the program one day when Abbott-Barish had a scheduling conflict and could not attend a session. “One of the students took over and ran the ‘circle’ that week,” she said. “It was gratifying to see how committed these students were to the program.”
Lovejoy, a Mathematics and Philosophy major from Santa Cruz, CA, worked with divorce mediator Leanne Lawson, who handles divorce, child custody
In one case, a woman with mental health issues who had children with three different fathers was able to ensure that her children were able to remain in stable homes. “One of the fathers who lived in Florida agreed to move back here to make the outcome successful,” Lovejoy said. “All of the men worked with the woman and the Mediation Center to find a solution.”
Toward the end of her stint at the Mediation Center, Lovejoy sat in on her first family mediation session, and
Lovejoy noted that Lawson and others at the Mediation Center were working on protocols to make the Medication Center welcoming to the LGBTQ community and were addressing divorce-related issues involving same-sex couples. “I just loved the atmosphere there,” she said.
Cecilia Bobbitt ’19: Center for Victim Safety and Support
Bobbitt, a Political Science and Science Technology and Society double major from Los Angeles, performed multiple tasks for the center. She answered the agency’s hotline, helped clients apply for services and often accompanied them to court when their cases were being adjudicated.
“It was challenging work, but it was rewarding being able to make a difference in people’s lives in such a tangible way,” Bobbitt said. “In this crazy political environment when so much is out of our control, it was gratifying to help our clients with matters that they can control and connect them to the appropriate resources.”
She said the experience had reinforced her desire to become a lawyer. “I want to use the law to help people like the ones I worked with this summer,” Bobbitt said. “I saw the need for the strength and power of the law to address these issues.”
Aidan Aciukewicz ’19: REAL Skills of Poughkeepsie
Ever since his first year at Vassar, Aciukewicz has been volunteering at REAL Skills Network, Inc., an organization that provides educational and recreational opportunities for disadvantaged children in Poughkeepsie. When he became a full-time employee this summer, he used many of the skills he had acquired over the past three years., and he even added a new one. “I kind of did whatever was needed,” he said, “tutoring kids and helping out with the programs at the day camp. And I started to learn how to write grants.”
Aciukewicz said it was gratifying to see the progress many of the children and their older mentors had made over the three years he had been involved with REAL Skills. “Some of the high school students who were camp counselors when I got here have gone off to college and have returned to be part of the leadership team,” he said.
He said he planned to continue to volunteer at REAL Skills during his senior year. “I feel like I’m part of the REAL Skills family, and being a part of this place has changed me,” Aciukewicz said. “It’s taught me the importance of knowing your community if you want to help your community. I’ll take that knowledge with me wherever I go after I leave Vassar.”
Savannah Smith ’19: Poughkeepsie Farm Project
Smith, a Political Science and Africana Studies double major from Porter, TX, spent part of her junior year studying in Cameroon. She said her classes on the African Diaspora contained discourse on the cultural, social, historical and political issues but not much about agrarian issues. “The irony is that many Cameroonians and people within the diaspora participate in agricultural production, usually subsistence agriculture, which is related to issues of development,” she said. “My job this summer enabled me to understand the hands-on skills and challenges of farming and learn to appreciate it,. Knowing the mechanics of farming will enable me to relate better to Global South people going forward.”
In addition to helping to grow the fruits and vegetables and maintaining the Education Garden, Smith acted as a tour guide, and once a week she was part of a distribution team that brought fresh produce to Dutchess Outreach, a local not-for-profit agency.
The farm tours always ended with an impromptu sampling of some of the food, including a “smoothie” competition: sweet potatoes, peanut butter, honey and bananas vs. beets, bananas, strawberries and orange juice.
“Many of the young people who visited the farm didn’t know much about where their food comes from,” Smith said. “We were able to show them a part of the food system and teach them the importance of not just a healthy diet but sustainable agriculture as well.”