Skip to content

Community Fellows Program Extends Its Reach to Help Those in Need

Cassidy Kuebbeler ’21 helped low-income high school students in Nashville, TN prepare for college. Nywel Cheaye ’22 and Priscilla Kendall ’22 spent the summer helping men and women who have recently been released from jail or prison find jobs and housing. Elijah Appelson ’23 organized events for a local social justice reform group and conducted legal research for the New York Civil Liberties Union. Zsa Zsa Toms ’21 and Sonia Gollerkeri ’21 developed a nutrition education class for young or expectant mothers for a local healthcare agency. And Rachael Kraft ’21 worked as an intern for a local organization that provides support for immigrant farm workers.

Elijah Appelson ’23 performed a variety of social justice-related duties for the End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN) and the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.Photo: Keijé Walser

These Vassar students, and eight 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 22nd 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.

The students worked remotely this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but OCEL Director Lisa Kaul said the mission of the Community Fellows program hasn’t changed. “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 said. “They are learning to navigate the challenges of a work environment while performing meaningful service as part of their liberal arts education.”

While many of Vassar’s summer enrichment programs had to curtail some of their work, the Community Fellows program actually expanded its role, thanks in part to a gift from alumna Deborah Macfarlan Enright ’82. Enright is founder of The Macfarlan Group, a Nashville-based agency that provides management and consulting services for more than a dozen not-for-profit agencies, including Persist Nashville, an organization that helps low-income students prepare for college. Enright funded Kuebbeler’s internship at Persist Nashville as well as the position shared by Toms and Gollerkeri.

Enright said she was inspired to support the Community Fellows program after she saw the success of Sophomore Career Connections, an annual career workshop for Vassar sophomores organized by the Career Development Office that was conceived by fellow alumna, Carol Ostrow ’77 and her husband, Michael Graff. “I saw the impact Carol and Mike had made and wanted to do something to help our students make an impact in the world,” Enright said.

Enright said becoming a part of the Community Fellows program was easy and enjoyable. “The care that Lisa Kaul takes with Community Fellows and that the Career Development Office takes with Sophomore Career Connections makes supporting projects like these scalable and doable for other alums who may want to get involved,” she said.

In addition to the support that Enright provided, Kaul said she was able to secure funding from the Mellon Foundation for two additional slots. Support for an additional internship was provided by the office of the Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources. Funding continued for the six slots traditionally supported by the Office of the President.

Following are brief reports on some of the work done this summer by Vassar’s Community Fellows:

Cassidy Kuebbeler ’21, Persist Nashville

Cassidy Kuebbeler helped low-income high school students in Nashville prepare for college.

Kuebbeler, an urban studies and Hispanic studies double major from Evanston, IL, spent the summer helping high school students in Nashville make plans for college. Since she’s bilingual, Kuebbeler said, she was often assigned to work with students in Hispanic immigrant families.

Kuebbeler’s internship at Persist Nashville was funded by Deborah Enright ’82.

“It’s been a gratifying experience,” she said. “I talk to the students about goal-setting and self-assessment and getting them ready to really start thinking about college applications when they get back to school in the fall.”

Kuebbeler said she spent the first part of her internship familiarizing herself with the policies and procedures of community colleges in the Nashville area because those are the institutions many of the students would be attending. She said these and other tasks were initially challenging because she had never been to Nashville and was working remotely from Bozeman, Montana, where she spent the summer. She said Enright and her daughter, both of whom live in Nashville, helped her “navigate” the city digitally

Nywel Cheaye ’22 and Priscilla Kendall, Exodus Transitional Community

Cheaye, a science, technology and society major from New Castle, DE, volunteered with Exodus during the Spring Semester and was eager to continue the work this summer. She said her job was as rewarding as it was challenging. “People coming out of jail often don’t have a lot of resources, or even ways to have others contact them, and my job was helping them make the right connections,” Cheaye said.

Nywel Cheaye ’22

One client landed a job shortly after he was released but could not find housing. “He worked the overnight shift, so he couldn’t stay in a homeless shelter because it was closed during the day; he had to sleep in laundromats or other establishments,” Cheaye said. “We were able to find housing for him.”

When she wasn’t helping clients find the resources they need, Cheaye was conducting legal research for Exodus on issues stemming from racial injustice. “I did some research on laws in New York that protect police against charges of abuse and shield them from paying for their conduct,” Cheaye said.

She said she planned to continue to explore some of the issues she encountered as a Community Fellow when she returns to Vassar in the fall and after she graduates and pursues a career in law. “As an STS major, I’m focusing on how health and science connect with legal issues,” Cheaye said. “So many people have been criminalized for substance abuse and mental health issues, and while I’m at Vassar I want to learn more about ways we can reform the system.” 

Elijah Appelson ’23, End the New Jim Crow Action Network and New York Civil Liberties Union

Appelson, who went to high school in Poughkeepsie and now lives in nearby Mount Tremper, NY, was the lone paid employee at ENJAN, a social justice organization based in Poughkeepsie. He first joined ENJAN in January as a volunteer through the Office of Community-Engaged Learning and began his paid internship in June.

Elijah Appelson ’23

Appelson’s first task with ENJAN was acting as an observer in local courtrooms, and he later wrote a manual on court observation practices and protocols that will be used by other volunteers at ENJAN and other organizations. His tasks for the New York Civil Liberties Union included drafting news releases on how state prison inmates were being treated since the outbreak of COVID-19 and lobbying for a law that reformed the state’s bail system.

Appelson also organized rallies and protests in Poughkeepsie in cooperation with Black Lives Matter and several local civil rights and social justice groups, including the family of Maurice Gordon, a 28-year-old Poughkeepsie man who was fatally shot by police in New Jersey in May. And he worked with others at ENJAN to promote black-owned businesses in conjunction with the national organization Black Wall Street.

Appelson said it was gratifying to reestablish his connections with the city. “I was involved in volunteer work while I was in high school, and being able to come back and do the work I’m doing this year has really shaped my vision to continue to do this work in the future,” he said. “The fact that the Office of Community-Engaged Learning paid me to do this community-based work has been incredibly instrumental to my growth.”

Zsa Zsa Toms ’21 and Sonia Gollerkeri ’21, Hudson River Healthcare

Toms, an urban studies major from Seattle, and Gollerkeri, a biology major from Lexington, MA, each worked half-time at the healthcare agency, focusing on nutrition programs for young and expectant mothers. “I had done a lot of academic work on food insecurity, so it was great to be working on a program that integrated this with the delivery of healthcare,” Toms said.

Toms and Gollerkeri designed a nutrition education program for young and expectant mothers, including recipes suitable for those with gestational diabetes and hypertension. They also assisted Hudson Valley Healthcare in assembling monthly packets of condiments, spices, and other items that are not eligible for purchase with food stamps.

Gollerkeri worked as a volunteer at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie during the Spring Semester. “I wanted to continue to work in community healthcare for the summer, so this position was an ideal match,” she said. “As a biology major, I’ve learned how our bodies work and the nutrients humans rely on to function, so applying that knowledge for people who need access to the right food was rewarding.”

Both Toms and Gollerkeri plan to pursue master’s degrees in public health through a partnership Vassar has forged with Columbia University. And while the Community Fellows internship was not a direct prerequisite for the program, both said the experience was helpful as they prepared for the next phase of their academic careers.

Toms said her experience as a Community Fellow had provided her with some valuable insight about the delivery of healthcare to low-income families. “As a privileged Vassar student, I was aware of the fine line between helping and saviorism,” she said. “But I think I learned how to be genuine and caring and to take advantage of the privileges I’ve been granted as I go forward.”

Gollerkeri agreed. “The experience not only taught me how to work in this field remotely but also to think critically about our impact and to mitigate the saviorist mindset,” she said. “That’s something I will carry with me as I continue my work in public health.” 

Rachael Kraft ’21, Rural & Migrant Ministry 

Kraft, an environmental studies and Hispanic studies double major from Easton, PA, was involved in event planning and fund-raising during her summer internship. One of her tasks was collecting testimonials from migrant families connected with the organization for use in promotional and fund-raising materials. She also helped with planning for a conference hosted by the Rural Women’s Assembly, a network of rural women’s organizations, which will take place remotely in December.

Rachael Kraft ’21

Kraft said she was not familiar with the organization until she applied for a position as a Community Fellow in the spring. But she had some familiarity with issues affecting migrant families because she had previously volunteered with another local organization, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson. “Through my work this summer, I became really interested in the struggles for justice for farm workers,” she said. “And as a Hispanic studies major, I was able to use my knowledge of the language to communicate with the diverse staff.”

Kraft said her experience working with Rural & Migrant Ministry had spurred her to seek other opportunities to work with nonprofit agencies in the future. “I’ve gained experience in development work in a work space with people from many different backgrounds,” she said. “My work this summer demonstrated that many of the issues I’ve studied at Vassar—climate change, immigration, food justice—are interrelated.”