Community Fellows Program Gives Students an Unforgettable Summer

Photos by Leif Baxter ’22
Jordana Judd ’23 spent the summer working with young people at an arts organization in Poughkeepsie, planning events and helping them develop their own artistic skills. Asho Ashittey ’23 handled some publicity duties and other tasks for Celebrating the African Spirit (CAS), a local historical group that is working to recognize the contributions of enslaved Africans who lived and worked in the Poughkeepsie area in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Ariana Sierra-Chacon ’23 worked for CAS remotely from her home in Orlando, FL, updating the organization’s website and social media platforms.

These Vassar students and 12 others were enrolled for 10 weeks in the College’s Community Fellows program under the auspices of the Office of Community-Engaged Learning (OCEL). Now in its 23rd year, the program matches students’ skills and interests with the needs of not-for-profit and government agencies. Each of the students is paid a stipend by the College.

Thirteen of the positions were funded by grants from the Office of the PresidentDean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources, the Mary Kimball Todd Fund, and the Community-Engaged Intensives in the Humanities initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. An additional two positions were funded by Deborah Macfarlan Enright ’82, founder of The Macfarlan Group, a Nashville, TN-based agency that provides management and consulting services for more than a dozen not-for-profit agencies. Enright supported Community Fellows who worked for agencies in Nashville.

Lisa Kaul, director of the Office of Community-Engaged Learning, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had forced all of last summer’s Community Fellows to work remotely. This year, about half were able to work at their agencies’ offices in Poughkeepsie. “I am deeply grateful to the 13 organizations that partnered with us this year despite the uncertainty of the pandemic,” Kaul said. “Our students were able to get real-world experience working with a nonprofit organization while being mentored by professionals in the field. Each Fellow worked on a project with their organization that enabled them to bring their liberal arts education to bear on pressing social issues.”

A female student looks at a male student painting a picture at a table.
Community Fellow Jordanna Judd ’23 oversees a project with a youth who participated in a summer program run by The Art Effect, a Poughkeepsie nonprofit agency.

Jordana Judd ’23, The Art Effect, Poughkeepsie

Judd, a Media Studies major from New York City, said her stint at the Art Effect was her first sustained interaction with residents in the Poughkeepsie area since she enrolled at Vassar. She began the summer doing administrative tasks, such as ordering supplies, developing a budget for the organization’s summer youth program, and scheduling field trips to local museums and galleries. Later, she created drawings, paintings, and sculptures that served as examples of the kinds of work the young artists would be doing. Many of the images created by the young participants were incorporated into the design of a mural they painted in a city park at the end of the summer. “It’s been exciting to engage with these talented young people and collaborate with them in the creative process,” Judd said.

A girl speaks in front of a slide presentation.
Asho Ashittey ’23 performed numerous tasks this summer for Celebrating the African Spirit, a Poughkeepsie historical group that is raising awareness about the contributions of enslaved Africans who lived and worked in the Poughkeepsie area in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Asho Ashittey ’23, Celebrating the African Spirit, Poughkeepsie

Ashittey, an International Studies major from Orange, NJ, said her experience had enabled her to learn about Poughkeepsie’s history and establish relationships with people in the community who were doing meaningful work. “I’ve always been interested in how communities preserve and celebrate their histories,” she said. “It was great to get off campus and learn more about Poughkeepsie.”

One of Ashittey’s tasks was working with other CAS members in overseeing the group’s 12-day summer program for local teens, introducing them to the history of enslaved Africans and collecting information on where historical markers ought to be placed. Ashittey also helped handle publicity for a major event, the re-enactment of an anti-slavery speech that orator and former slave Frederick Douglass delivered in Poughkeepsie in 1858.

Ashittey said the variety of tasks she performed for CAS had given her some insight into how grassroots organizations can contribute to the vitality of a community. “My experience this summer taught me the value of collaboration, of empowering people from the spiritual, social and political arenas to share their ideas and influence the political decision makers,” she said.

Ariana Sierra-Chacon ’23, Celebrating the African Spirit

Sierra-Chacon, an International Studies major from Orlando, FL, said she learned about the work of Celebrating the African Spirit from her academic advisor, Professor of Political Science and CAS Co-Founder Katherine Hite. “What drew me to this project was the commitment Katie and the others had in memorializing a piece of Poughkeepsie history that was not well known,” she said. “They are focusing on employing art and design to highlight this history, and I’m a big advocate of using art for social projects.” Sierra-Chacon said that while she was more than 1,000 miles from Poughkeepsie, she definitely felt like part of the team.

A girl with trees behind her.
Ariana Sierra-Chacon

Hite said both Sierra-Chacon and Ashittey had played key roles in advancing CAS’s work this summer. “Ariana and Asho have been a critical part of our programming and our mission,” she said. “Ariana was working remotely but took on our website and social media duties, and she designed the flyers for our [Frederick Douglass] event. Asho did amazing work with our students, and she made many connections with people in the community.”

Following are excerpts of comments from other Community Fellows:

Sara Azcona-Miller ’23, Exodus Transitional Community

“I worked as a case manager, supporting participants who were re-entering society after being released from prison,” said Azcona-Miller, an American Studies major from Brooklyn, NY. “I worked with new participants, learning about their backgrounds, needs and goals. Many of our participants were mandated by their parole/probation officer to complete one of the programs we offer at Exodus, like our Anger Management and Ready, Set, Work classes, so I would set them up with those programs and connect them to other resources.

“Getting to know participants and co-workers on a human level has reinforced the idea that we all carry different stories and histories,” she said. “It has exposed the way our society perpetuates the cycle of recidivism through insufficient and inaccessible social services, white supremacy, and the criminalization of poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, and disability. Working at Exodus has shown me the way our society fails to support justice-impacted people and the mutually healing power of empathy.”

Josh Hernandez ’23, Poughkeepsie Farm Project

Hernandez, a Biochemistry major from Poughkeepsie, did a different job every day of the week at the Poughkeepsie Farm project. “Thursday was my favorite day,” he said. “I did free food distribution at a Poughkeepsie elementary school and was able to utilize my Spanish skills there talking to people in my community.” Hernandez also harvested crops, conducted hands-on gardening activities with local children, and educated the community about the work of the Farm Project.

“Being a community fellow has helped me grow as a person,” he said. “I’ve learned how to communicate better, I have improved my leadership skills, and I’ve learned a lot about plants and what it takes to grow the food that’s on our plates. Every time I worked at the farm, my appreciation for what farm workers do for us grew.”

Margaret Ritzau ’23, Roosevelt/Vanderbilt Historic Site

“As a Horticultural Fellow at the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt site, I assisted park horticulturists and teams of volunteers in maintaining the gardens at the homes of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt,” said Ritzau, a Cognitive Science major from Dayville, CT. “I also compiled a history of the garden at FDR’s home and worked on an audio tour of the gardens, a page of the National Historic Site website, and new signage for the garden.

“My fellowship allowed me to experience horticultural work and historical interpretation and to begin exploring Dutchess County. The volunteer sessions always provided educational opportunities; the park horticulturists gave detailed answers to questions about the varieties of plants, and their historical significance. I hope to be able to emulate this quiet, engaging leadership that led consistently to a communicative team maintaining beautiful spaces.”

Christopher Chieng ’22, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson

“The pandemic has reminded us of the importance of radical community care during times of heightened anxiety, change, and disillusionment,” said Chieng, an International Studies major from Franklin, MA. “Working for Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson was a great way for me to connect with the Mid-Hudson community. The organization seeks to enact change by empowering people to engage in the electoral process. Being part of the Community Fellows program and having the opportunity to work with Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson has been very rewarding.”

A photo of a young man with glasses and a beard.
Julio Gonzalez ’22

Julio Gonzalez ’22, Persist Nashville

“I made connections with colleges and trade schools that previous students in the program had enrolled in to enable Persist Nashville coaches to guide high school students in planning for college or careers,” said Gonzalez, an Educational Studies major from the Bronx, NY. “I also worked on the monthly newsletter, The Persister, which focused on overcoming obstacles these students might face. Working for Persist Nashville made me realize there are many paths in the field of education aside from becoming a teacher. The work this summer also pushed me out of my comfort zone, which was priceless.”

A formal portrait of a young man wearing a blue sport jacket.
David Cyril David ’22

David Cyril David ’22, Nashville Entrepreneur Center

“I was matched with a nonprofit agency that aligned with my goals, interests, and skills,” said David, a Computer Science major from Macon, GA. “I employed my knowledge of computer science to help the agency automate repetitive tasks, using my skills at an agency that has a social impact. Being a Community Fellow was life-changing.”

September 13, 2021