Voorhees Fellows Report on Internship Assignments
In early 2009, the Bloustein School established the Ralph W. Voorhees Fellowships in Public Service through a $500,000 endowment from Scott Voorhees and Susan Voorhees Hunt to honor their uncle, Ralph Voorhees, for his long-standing commitment to community public service.
The fellowships are designed to help Rutgers undergraduates with financial needs take advantage of the university’s service-learning opportunities, engage with Rutgers’ community partners, and to connect their education with the experience of participating in local community life.
The first four recipients of the fellowships were announced last fall. The students, selected from a competitive undergraduate applicant pool of all majors at Rutgers‑New Brunswick, receive $5,000 ($2,500 in each semester) so they may undertake credit-bearing internships with non-profit or government organizations in areas such as community development and planning, community-based education, housing and public transportation, public health, and public policy.
The fellows—Victoria Gilbert, Drew Hart, Michael Lamm, and Ashley Sawyer—recently presented their reports at a small reception at the Bloustein School. A brief summary of each of their reports follows.
When Victoria Gilbert applied for the Voorhees Fellowship, she was interested in gaining first-hand experience with the community development strategies she was learning about in her classes. The Fellowship enabled her to take a position with the Unity Square Partnership, a Catholic Charities-funded neighborhood revitalization project.
The Unity Square Partnership was created in 2006 to revitalize a low-income neighborhood in New Brunswick. In addition to providing community building and strengthening activities, a youth empowerment program, a center to mediate housing concerns and legal issues, immigration resources, economic development activities, housing redevelopment projects, a street revitalization project, and several other programs and projects, one of the Partnership’s most challenging charges is to work to unite the two distinct populations, long-term elderly African American homeowners and newly immigrated Latino renters, residing within the 37-square-block neighborhood.
“My role at the Partnership was constantly evolving,” said Victoria, who worked about 12 hours a week at that Partnership’s office. Working as both the Events Coordinator and the Housing Resource Center Coordinator, Victoria was able to directly interact with neighborhood residents in very distinct areas.
One of her first events was running the annual Trunk-or-Treat Halloween event, a safe alternative to trick-or-treating. Rutgers students, neighborhood residents, local church members, and other volunteers gathered and parked cars in a local church parking lot, allowing more than 1,000 residents and their children to trick-or-treat in a controlled area. Victoria also organized the Unity Square Earth Day Clean-Up in the spring. Residents and volunteers spent over two hours cleaning up neighborhood streets, and then concluded the day with an ice cream social celebration at a neighborhood park.
As Housing Resource Coordinator, Victoria helped neighborhood residents with all housing-related concerns and conflicts, including assisting with rent control issues and dealing with landlords who were not providing adequate heating and utility services for their residents. “My work as the Housing Resource Coordinator tied directly into my planning and public policy major; I have seen how housing policies directly impact residents and how the burden of proof and responsibility is placed on the tenant, often allowing landlords to get away with illegal practices,” she noted.
“My experience at the Unity Square Partnership has been invaluable,” she said. “With the opportunity to be involved with and exposed to so many different types of community development efforts and programs, and the freedom to directly interact with and help community members, I feel I have truly experienced how to effectively better a community. I have gained skills in nonprofit management, budget development, event planning, social work services, youth empowerment mentoring, sustainable development, and time management; I’ve learned how important, and impossible, it can be to juggle all the different services an ambitious program can supply to a neighborhood. In my efforts to learn about a struggling community and help it, I have gained more knowledge and experience than I ever would have expected.”
In his original fellowship proposal, Drew Hart sought to work with two local organizations to collaborate in the creation of a community garden. When those original partner organizations fell through, Drew began visiting other local organizations and soon discovered a local school, Lord Stirling Community School, was very interested. Working with the New Brunswick Board of Education Division of Grounds and Maintenance and the school, Drew soon was able to begin the process of setting his ideas in motion.
The most difficult part of the process was securing the necessary approvals and determining appropriate site plans, but by early December Drew and a group of teachers at Lord Stirling broke ground on the garden. “Once the bed was built, the teachers and I then began to develop activities that would tie the garden into the students’ curricular work. The first students to be involved with the garden were to be introduced to the idea of growing food; discussing nutrition, nature, and gardening; using the bed to calculate area; and helping to prepare and plant an experimental crop.”
Drew spent the winter developing lesson plans and working with the teachers to discuss ways to connect the material to the garden and to incorporate hands-on, exciting activities into the curriculum. Some of his activities related to the school garden have included recruiting Rutgers students to ensure the continuity of the project in the future, meeting with other local gardeners in town to discuss the potential for cross-talk and collaboration between different garden projects, and working with Elijah´s Promise to help that organization develop their plans for a community garden.
Much of Drew’s work involved laying the foundation for the program; his primary goal was to implement his ideas and set the stage for the future success of the project. “The recruitment effort was proving to be much more challenging than I had initially anticipated, so I spent extra time pursuing numerous avenues for spreading the word to the right students,” Drew said. “I met with a number of Rutgers faculty to secure credit eligibility for Rutgers students, in order to give the project more legitimacy and to create a formal incentive for interested and qualified students. Through these efforts, five interns were identified and accepted for the upcoming year, so I am pleased that this project will continue to move forward.”
The most exciting part of the project came as Drew’s involvement in the effort was ending: finally getting the students into the garden to plant their first food…ever. “The key to the success of the garden is keeping it integrally involved in the curriculum and the community, year-round. In the future, I hope to see the program evolve as it accumulates additional lesson plans, gets parents and members of the community involved, and maybe even ties into an after-school or other existing program to generate additional interest. The potential in this –neighborhood—most of whose residents are Latin American immigrants and have a wealth of basic agricultural –experience—and in this city is enormous, and projects like this are becoming ever more prevalent. May the garden continue to grow!”
Michael Lamm decided to intern with the data analysts at the Rutgers Center for State Health Policy to learn about how the understanding of a community and the problems facing it is developed when the community of interest is of a larger scale. During most of his time at the Center, he worked on projects related to the New Jersey Childhood Obesity Study.
Michael explained that the motivation behind the Obesity Study was findings reported by the New Jersey Obesity Prevention Taskforce. According to the taskforce, New Jersey has the highest incidence in the nation of obesity in low-income children aged two to five, but no sources of information on the rates of obesity among children ages five to eighteen existed at the state level. The study aims to generate estimates on the levels of obesity in children throughout the state and to identify those factors that are related to childhood obesity.
“I spent the early part of my internship getting familiarized with the sort of data that I would be working with over the year, and then going through the data to identify errors made during data entry, flag implausible measurements, and determine the completeness of the data,” said Michael. The result of this work, he continued, was a database of uniformly formatted data, important for not only achieving valid city-wide prevalence estimates but also for providing the correct school-specific estimates of obesity.
In the next part of his internship, he began work on data from both the 2001 and 2009 New Jersey Family Health Survey (NJFHS), which touch upon a number of different health-related topics ranging from accessibility of medical care and insurance rates to information on the height and weight of an index child from each household surveyed, information of particular interest for the obesity study. “One of the applications of these surveys will be to make comparisons between their results from the two different years,” he noted. “To me, this work was very interesting since it was creating a vivid picture of the heath status of the state and how it has changed. These understandings are then an incredibly useful tool for the development and evaluation of policy, and getting to take part in the process of creating these understandings was exactly the type of experience I was hoping to get.”
Michael believes that the most beneficial part of his experience was being able to observe the various interactions among disciplines while working on his many projects. “Getting to take part in the meetings where the analysts, geographers, economists, public health workers, and the principal investigators share their work and insight has been a great experience. To be able to take part in such an interdisciplinary project is the type of experience that I think would be just about impossible without a program like the Voorhees Fellowship.”
During her Fellowship year, Ashley Sawyer had the opportunity to work in two different policy offices. In her first semester as an intern in former Governor Jon S. Corzine’s Policy office, Ashley worked under the direction of Janellen Duffy, the administration’s policy director. In addition to preparing briefs of the Governor’s activities, particularly his events related to education, Ashley was responsible for conducting research on the President’s Race To The Top Fund Program. A federal program designed to improve overall academic performance in public schools, the Race To The Top Fund Program focuses particularly on improving performance in low-performing schools, increasing school accountability and improving math performance.
The internship with the governor’s office was developed through the Capital City internship program, run by the Rutgers Public Relations office and the university’s Department of Political Science. “I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn how government attempts to serve the needs of its constituents,” Ashley said. “In addition to learning about educational policy, I saw first-hand the struggles various urban cities in New Jersey are facing.” Ashley was able to learn about the state’s role in cities such as Camden and Newark, as well as the state’s efforts to address many of the challenges those communities currently face.
“During my second semester, I interned at the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation in the Public Policy department,” Ashley said. “I worked with Public Policy Manager Kristen Crawford and helped with Leadership Hyacinth training, prepared a newsletter for Leadership Hyacinth participants, and helped set up One Conversation HIV/AIDS training with black faith-based organizations.” Leadership Hyacinth is a program designed to lobby government officials at the state and federal levels on issues affecting the HIV/AIDS community. The organization teaches participants about civics, provides an understanding of legislation affecting people living with HIV, and helps people use their personal HIV stories for lobbying purposes.
Ashley’s experience with Hyacinth allowed her to work with the clients who were preparing for a lobbying trip as well as participate in prevention outreach efforts, giving her the opportunity to speak with youth about protecting themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Through that experience Ashley was able to more thoroughly appreciate the needs of youth in all aspects of education policy. Additionally, Ashley was able to participate in one of Hyacinth’s most prominent campaigns, One Conversation. “The African-American and Latino communities, particularly African-American and Latina women, have been uniquely affected by HIV/AIDS in the United States, as these women make up the majority of new cases of HIV infection,” noted Ashley. “I have always been particularly passionate about issues affecting this demographic and therefore took a strong interest in the One Conversation campaign because it reaches out to faith-based organizations, particularly African-American churches, to teach about HIV prevention. Many religious organizations have turned a blind eye to an epidemic that affects their mostly female congregations, but the One Conversation campaign engages ministers to learn more about HIV and its prevention and also encourages outreach to people living with HIV or AIDS.”
Ashley enjoyed having the opportunity to reach out to people from her own community in such a meaningful way and felt particularly gratified to have the opportunity to raise awareness. “I was moved by how little people really know about HIV and about the stereotypes and misconceptions people carry about the disease, and the experiences I had at different faith-based organizations both shocked and invigorated me.” In order to break down walls of silence that propel the spread of the disease, Ashley believes that more programs such as One Conversation need to be organized in public schools. With the experience she gained in this internship, she hopes to build a career in public policy in which she can impact the lives of people affected by HIV as well as support educational programs and policy initiatives that prevent its spread.
“The Voorhees fellowship was tremendously beneficial to me,” Ashley concluded. “It gave me meaningful service experience and reminded me of the ways that government and non-profits can serve people. I would not have been able to take advantage of these internships or develop those experiences without the help of this fellowship, and I am immensely grateful for the support provided by the Voorhees family.”
The school recently announced the four undergraduates chosen as the 2010-11 Voorhees Fellows. You can read more about the students here.