News & Features

Community Fellows: Bringing Town and Gown Together

Will Wheeler '14 with local children at an area firehouse.
Will Wheeler '14 with local children at an area firehouse.

Will Wheeler ’14 thought he’d be spending the summer tutoring children at a day camp in Poughkeepsie, about a mile from the Vassar campus. His job has turned out to be a tad more complicated than that. 

“Tutoring’s about five percent of what I do,” said Wheeler, one of 10 Vassar students working at full-time jobs in Poughkeepsie this summer through the college’s Community Fellows program.

A counselor at the Real Skills Network day camp at the Poughkeepsie Family Partnership Center, Wheeler is using his talents as an artist, photographer, and videographer to enrich the campers’ experience, Real Skills director Theodore Arrington says.

“Vassar students bring this attitude—‘I want to make a difference’—and they do,” Arrington says. “Will’s such a multifaceted kid, we’ve been able to use him in a lot of different ways.”

When Wheeler learned the campers were putting on a play, he brought some of his video equipment along and recorded the show. “When Will finished editing it, our little play looked like a TV show,” Arrington says. When Wheeler mentioned one day he was minoring in art at Vassar, Arrington asked him to run an art class. A few days later, he was teaching the campers how to make puppets out of paper bags.

Putting talented Vassar students to work in meaningful off-campus summer jobs is what the Community Fellows program is all about, says director of field work Peter Leonard. “It’s a highly competitive process—we had 86 applicants for 10 slots—and we try to match the students’ skills with the agencies’ needs.”

Not far from where Wheeler works at the day camp, Faren Tang ’13 is helping victims of domestic violence rebuild their lives. Tang served as an intern during the last school year at the Battered Women’s Services unit of Family Services, Inc., and she’s working as a counselor there this summer. Like Wheeler, she’s discovering her job requires a variety of skills. She fields calls on the agency’s crisis hotline, advises clients on how to find financial and legal assistance, and has helped the office staff install a new computer system.

Tang said her stint as an intern had only partially prepared her for full-time work.

“You have to have empathy for the clients as they deal with their emotional distress, but at the same time you have to step back and figure out practical ways to help them—you have to give space to both,” she says. “As an intern I’d comfort the clients, but the staff would be doing the rest of the work.”

Tang’s supervisor, Katherine Raynor, called her contributions to the agency “phenomenal.” “Faren is caring and sympathetic, and when there’s work to be done, she goes above and beyond her job description,” Raynor says. “She’s taken on her own caseload of clients and has developed a real ability to find ways to help them.”

Community Fellow Stephanie Osei-Sarpong ’15 said that when she began her job May 29 at Poughkeepsie City Hall, she had “no idea” how municipal government worked. She’s finding out fast, transcribing minutes of city council meetings, processing tax payments and water bills, and helping to prepare reports in the Finance Office.

Osei-Sarpong said she’s not only learning what it takes to run a city but also how challenging that can be in tough economic times. “I’m seeing how understaffed some of the departments are—how things don’t get done as fast as you’d like them to,” she says.

The job has had its share of rewards, however. “Recently, a financial report was coming out, and I read through it and found a mistake. That day, I really felt I made a difference,” she says.

Poughkeepsie Mayor John Tkazyik says Vassar students have been making a difference at city hall for quite a while. “We have interns during the school year, and we’re lucky enough to have Stephanie this summer,” he says. “All the different jobs she’s doing have been very beneficial to us and to the taxpayers of the city.”

Since its inception 15 years ago, the program has brought some lasting benefits to the Poughkeepsie area. Several students who served as Community Fellows have returned to work at local nonprofit agencies after they graduated from Vassar.

“We’ve had every good luck in that regard,” Leonard says, “and it proves that encouraging our students to commit to community service is integral to education here.”

–Larry Hertz

Photos © Vassar College/Buck Lewis

Posted Wednesday, August 1, 2012