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Community FellowsGood Things Happen When Students Work in Poughkeepsie Over the Summer

Vanessa Vazquez ’21 spent the summer engaging with low-income families in Poughkeepsie, helping them stretch their food budgets and seeking their input on the effectiveness of government programs in helping them improve their lives.

Margaret Matthews ’20 played a key role in a $190,000 fundraising campaign for a local nonprofit agency and led a team that registered hundreds of new voters.

Margaret Devlin ’20 acted as an advocate for victims of domestic violence.

Vazquez, Mathews, Devlin, and four other Vassar students engaged in meaningful jobs in the local community through the college’s Community Fellows program. Now in its 22nd year, the program matches students’ skills and interests with the needs of local agencies. The college pays each of the students a stipend.

Lisa Kaul, director of Vassar’s Office of Community-Engaged Learning, says the Community Fellows program enables students to gain hands-on work experience while strengthening the college’s ties with the community.

“Underlying all of our work is the belief that we are helping to fulfill the college’s mission in having students engage in the community, leading them to continue this kind of service and work when they leave Vassar,” Kaul says. “Through the Community Fellows program, they are learning to navigate the challenges of a work environment while performing meaningful service as part of their liberal arts education.”

This year, for the first time, Kaul asked the local agencies to submit written proposals outlining the tasks they would be asking the students to perform. The program began with a two-day orientation, and the seven students met weekly throughout the summer to give brief reports on their work and to trade observations about their successes as well as the challenges they were facing, she says.

Vanessa Vazquez ’21, Dutchess Outreach

Vanessa Vazquez ’21

Vazquez, an environmental studies major from Yonkers, NY, filled several roles at the nonprofit agency, which serves low-income families in the Poughkeepsie area. She distributed food and other items in the agency’s food pantry to hundreds of families. While she was assisting them, Vazquez also asked them to respond to a survey to gauge how effective the federal food stamp program has been in meeting their needs. 

“That survey showed that the food stamp program does not fill all of their needs and that our food pantry fills a definite need for many families in Poughkeepsie,” Vazquez says.

Vazquez also staffed the agency’s mobile Fresh Market, which supplied fresh fruit and vegetables to low-income families at reduced prices. When she surveyed the market’s clients, Vazquez says, most families told her that shopping at the market was the cheapest and easiest way for them to obtain healthy produce.

All of her work at Dutchess Outreach was rewarding, Vazquez says. “As an environmental studies major, I had some knowledge about food poverty, and this work enhanced that knowledge,” she says. “This was my first sustained contact with the Poughkeepsie community, and I have come to see the importance of this agency in providing for people in need.”

Vazquez adds that she was glad that she and others in the Community Fellows cohort had the chance to trade information about their experiences. “We talked a lot about the common problems we were seeing and about the opportunities for collaboration among some of the agencies,” she says.

Margaret Matthews ’20, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson

Margaret Matthews ’20

Founded by Vassar alumnae/i in the wake of the 2008 recession, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson addresses housing needs and other financial issues facing families throughout the Hudson Valley. Matthews, a neuroscience and Science, Technology, and Society double major from New York City, began her nine-week stint at the agency by overseeing a major fundraising campaign. “Our goal was $150,000, and we surpassed $192,000,” she says. “It was empowering to be able to raise that much money and to know how many people we can help. It will expand the scope of our work significantly.”

Matthews was also one of four Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson employees who worked with a corps of volunteers on the Know Your Rights campaign, which advises local immigrants on how to interact with federal immigration authorities. She planned to remain with the organization in early August, after the formal Community Fellows program ended, to organize a major event publicizing the Municipal Identification Card program in the city of Kingston. The cards help immigrants obtain driver’s licenses and secure employment. Matthews was successful in persuading several local businesses to offer discounts to immigrants who obtain such cards.

Matthews also helped organize several voter registration drives, training volunteers in how to register voters. Over the summer, she says, the agency helped more than 500 people register to vote.

Noting that she volunteered for the organization during the last two school years, Matthews says she was grateful for the opportunity to make a bigger impact as a full-time employee. “The skills I’ve acquired doing this work have given me confidence that I can do this meaningful kind of work going forward as a career,” she says. “I’ve really grown as a leader and hope to work for a not-for-profit agency—or maybe even on a presidential campaign—after I graduate.”

Margaret Devlin ’20, Center for Victim Safety and Support

Margaret Devlin ’20

Devlin, a Russian and sociology major from North Andover, MA, had done fieldwork with the agency during the fall 2018 semester and was grateful for the opportunity to continue that work in a full-time capacity this summer. Her duties included answering the agency’s 24-hour hotline, registering clients for services, and setting up their initial appointments. Devlin also accompanied some clients to court when they sought orders of protection from their abusers. She says the work was as rewarding as it was challenging.

“It’s definitely a job that you take home with you at the end of the day, and you have to be passionate about what you’re doing,” she says. “But the office is a strong, woman-centered environment and we all support each other. I really admire the people who have been in this work for a long time.”

Devlin says her experience this summer has prompted her to re-think her career trajectory. “I had planned to go to law school right after college, but now I’m thinking of working in this field for a couple of years,” she says. “Then I’ll decide if I will pursue a degree in social work or get a law degree and continue to work in the field in that way.”

Devlin adds that she will never forget the first time she accompanied a client to court. “I was shadowing another worker in the office, and I’ll always remember the feeling of standing silently in support of our client,” she says. “It was a powerful experience.”

Aidan Zola ’20, Hudson River Healthcare

Aidan Zola ’20

Zola, a French and Science, Technology, and Society double major from Washington, NJ, worked with a certified nurse-midwife to develop a comprehensive prenatal and perinatal care program for expectant mothers and women with infants. Her duties included grant writing for the agency and developing support groups for the young and expectant mothers.

During the summer, Zola completed her training as a birth doula, someone who helps nurses and midwives care for women before, during, and just after they give birth.

She says she learned a lot in a relatively short period of time. “Three months ago, I knew virtually nothing about the health care industry, and now I am involved in many aspects of prenatal care and pregnancy,” Zola says. “It’s been a pretty sharp learning curve. I’m able to see many real-world issues associated with health care—insurance, housing, transportation—on a daily basis. I also learned that people in this field work extremely hard.”

Zola plans to draw on her experiences this summer when she writes her senior thesis. She also notes that her work at Hudson River Healthcare has helped shape her career plans. “Before this summer, I was interested in women’s health issues in general,” she says. “This experience has helped me to focus on pregnancy and birth in the public health field.”

Marc Milone ’20, Poughkeepsie City School District

Marc Milone ’20

Milone, a drama and education double major from Chatham, NJ, began the summer by organizing an event celebrating the work of nine other local agencies that collaborated with the school district in its after-school programs.

“Planning an event like this was a totally new experience for me, and I learned to take on some of the challenges of collaborating with many different people to create a successful event,” Milone says. “As an education major, I was more familiar with activities that go on in the classroom. This experience taught me a little about the administrative side of education, the effort it takes to run many aspects of a school district.”

When the Poughkeepsie school year ended, Milone worked as program coordinator for My Brother’s Keeper STEM and Sports Camp, a federally funded summer enrichment program for about 90 students between the ages of 8 and 15. Milone says he and others who worked at the day camp faced significant challenges in dealing with young people of different ages and backgrounds.

“We encountered many young people with behavioral issues,” Milone adds, “and we faced the question of whether to simply ban them from the program if they broke the rules. I chose to challenge them to make better choices. It wasn’t always successful, but I think it was the right approach.”

Lena Stevens ’21, Fall Kill Creative Works

Lena Stevens ’21

Stevens, a film and Media Studies double major from Mililani, HI, worked as a marketing specialist and outreach coordinator for Fall Kill Creative Works, a nonprofit agency that promotes the arts and other cultural events in the Poughkeepsie area.

One of Stevens’ first tasks was finding ways to inform the public that the agency had changed its name—previously, it had been known as Mid-Hudson Heritage Center. She created a new website and reached out to local media to get out the word about the agency. “I was able to create the new website and get a story about us in Chronogram [a local magazine],” Stevens says. “We have some assets that are unique and interesting, so getting publicity wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be, but there is still work to be done to get our new name out in the community.”

Stevens says the weekly meetings she had with the Community Fellows cohort had sparked an idea for future collaboration between Fall Kill Creative Works and the Center for Victim Safety and Support. “It made me think about cross-pollination—perhaps the assault victims could benefit from art therapy provided by Fall Kill,” she says.

Stevens notes that her experience this summer in developing marketing plans had given her some ideas about how to utilize those skills in a future career. “Marketing skills are something all businesses and not-for-profit agencies need,” she says.

Jennifer Luo ’20, Poughkeepsie Farm Project

Jennifer Luo ’20

Luo, an education major from Doylestown, PA, says she didn’t know much about farming when she applied for the job but had spoken to other students who had worked at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, “and they all told me it was a great experience.” As an officer in the Vassar Student Association, Luo took part in plans that led to changes in the campus dining plan that brought more farm-to-table products to the campus.

One of Luo’s principal tasks was leading tours of the Farm Project for local school and community groups. The tours always ended with the preparation of salads, smoothies or other treats using the farm’s organically grown produce. She says introducing young children to the benefits of fresh, locally grown food was one of her favorite experiences.

“For many of these children, the visit to the farm was their first educational experience about how food is produced,” she notes.” It’s gratifying every time I see a child get excited about tasting a new vegetable.”

Luo says working at the farm all summer had made her more aware of the power of food production as a catalyst for meaningful social interaction. “It made me realize how this kind of food production can be an effective tool for community building,” she says.

“I’m amazed by how much food is produced here on a relatively small piece of land,” Luo continues. “It makes me want to find ways to make this farm more accessible to the community and to duplicate this kind of farming around the region and across the country.”