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Portraits in Community Engagement

By Vassar Quarterly

A few Vassarites who prove every day that Vassar is an integral part of the Hudson Valley Community.

Ed Pittman
Ed Pittman
Ed Pittman ’82: Bridging the Gap

Ed Pittman ’82 knows firsthand that familiarity with the campus is one way to bridge the gap between local youth and Vassar College. Pittman, now associate dean of the college, grew up in downtown Poughkeepsie, along North and South Perry streets. He credits a tutoring program that brought him to Vassar each weekend for a semester of his fourth-grade year with making him feel as though the campus was in his “universe.” Pittman recalls, “In my youth, no one said ‘Hey, it’s possible for you to go Vassar.’ But then I realized that it was possible, that I could apply. Because of those early experiences, it wasn’t completely foreign to me.” Pittman attended Poughkeepsie High School and studied at Dutchess Community College before transferring to Vassar.

In his role as associate dean of the college, Pittman has sought ways to encourage other local students to pursue post-secondary education. He was one of the driving forces in the planning and implementation of Exploring College, Vassar’s new mentoring and college readiness initiative, which aims to help local students broaden their educational horizons The three-year pilot program began in spring 2010 with 40 students from Poughkeepsie High.

Pittman became even more familiar with the challenges faced by the city’s youth as a member of the Poughkeepsie Board of Education; he served as its president in 1996. “Being both an alumnus and administrator at Vassar and serving as a member of the board offered a unique perspective on the situation,” says Pittman, who used his intimate knowledge of Vassar and the Poughkeepsie school system to work with Dean of the College Chris Roellke to prepare a proposal for a Dyson Foundation grant. That grant proposal eventually yielded $600,000 to support Exploring College and other educational initiatives.

Pittman is hoping that Exploring College and other programs that extend a hand to local youth will bring more students who had not considered college around to the idea that they can go. “These kinds of connections allow people to think about the possibility of Vassar, as well as other colleges,” he concludes.

Nicole Roylance: Bringing Art to the People

Nicole Roylance, coordinator of public education and information at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, has an enviable job. “I bring art to the people,” she says with a smile. Roylance administers Vassar’s Every Artwork Tells a Story program, which has brought a gallery experience to thousands of regional Pre-K to high school students since its inception in 2005.

Nicole Royce
Nicole Royce

Roylance trains student docents to go into schools to lead discussions about works of art from the Art Center's collection. The presentations are customized to address particular subjects and themes relating to the school’s curriculum, and if funding is available for transportation, some lucky students get to visit the Art Center to experience the art firsthand. The program is important, says Roylance, because many school districts have slashed art education budgets to a bare minimum. As a result, students get very little exposure to art. Every Artwork Tells a Story helps to close this gap and fosters in children a more intimate relationship with art early on.

“Kids who grow up today are bombarded with images all the time, but they don’t take time to analyze what they’re seeing,” Roylance says. “In this program, every single child is called upon in order to get them to realize that there’s something in a piece of art for them. They don’t have to read the text to get something out of it.”

In the beginning, many students often don’t realize they have anything to say or they downplay the significance of their thoughts, Roylance notes, but the docents are urged to create a nonjudgmental atmosphere in which everyone’s interpretations of the art is respected. “Those are the powerful moments, when you realize the capacity of the student and the way they are able to express themselves.”

 ”I had a voice message last year from a woman who only identified herself as ‘Jenny's grandmother.’ One of our student docents had visited Jenny’s class that day and the girl had rushed home to tell her grandmother all about it, saying that they must visit the museum. It was very endearing and spoke to the influence that the Vassar students can have on the classes they visit. They not only make art more accessible, they also make it cool!”

Diane Harriford
Diane Harriford
Diane Harriford: The Road to “Belonging”

For Diane Harriford, professor of sociology and former director of Vassar’s Women’s Studies Department, Sistah Power! is an apt name for a group that brings together two sets of young women to empower each other. Harriford cofounded the enrichment group that connects Vassar students with local girls after noticing that there were few black women in her women’s studies classes, even though there had been a real commitment to having women of color represented in the curriculum, and that some black women, in particular, were feeling isolated from their communities while at Vassar. Sistah Power! was intended as a way both to encourage the students to explore feminist ideas in relevant ways and to give them a sense of purpose by connecting them to the wider community outside of Vassar.

Sistah Power! is an independent study course for Vassar students, who use African dance, drumming, writing, and weekly educational activities as a way to foster sisterhood between them and girls ages seven to thirteen from the City of Poughkeepsie School District. The students serve as a mentors and “Big Sisters” to each girl and are responsible for developing and implementing educational activities. As part of the Vassar students' learning experience, they meet regularly to discuss feminist approaches to community outreach, girls' physical, cultural, and emotional development needs, and to plan what the girls will do each week. “The idea was not to do missionary work but to enrich Vassar students’ experience,” Harriford notes, adding that the group provides a way for the Vassar women to connect to each other, too.

She believes that the reflective nature of the relationships that develop between Vassar students and these girls over the course the their time together enhances the experience for both groups. “Our students are going out into the community and seeing what needs to be done and being with people who are ‘them’ in some ways, when they were 9, 10, or 13 years old. They become role models, so that Poughkeepsie girls can see themselves coming here.”

Over the course of time, local students spend time on campus. Weekly sessions are sometimes held at Vassar, as is the group’s annual scavenger hunt, which Harriford says is the perfect way to familiarize the girls with the “nooks and crannies” of the campus. The group also holds on campus its annual fall celebration, featuring the students’ writing, music, and dance to showcase their talents and growth. “These activities help the girls feel as though they really belong at Vassar,” Harriford says. “They can say, ‘Well, I could come to college here. I’ve been here already.’”

Lynn Capozzoli
Lynn Capozzoli
Lynn Capozzoli: Hands-on Teaching (and Learning)

Lynn Capozzoli, director of Exploring Science at the Vassar Farm Program, is no stranger to teaching. She’s had years of experience with elementary school students in both private and public schools and has now turned her skills to teaching Vassar students how to teach science to area school children at the Farm.

 “Children in the city have fewer opportunities for the exploration of nature so exposing them to our natural resources here on the Vassar Farm property is important. Realizing they are welcome to walk the preserve with their families and share what they learned allows them to feel a part of the community of Vassar,” said Capozzoli.

Exploring Science at Vassar Farm was founded in 1982 by retired professor Bob Suter and his wife Valerie to expose elementary-school children to natural history and hands-on science. Classes of local school children are invited to spend a morning at the Collins Field Station on the Vassar Farm, taking nature walks, performing simple experiments, and observing live insects and animals.

Vassar Farm
Vassar Farm
Vassar students serve as teachers and work with Capozzoli and other faculty members to design and implement lessons in science and environmental education for elementary students in Poughkeepsie and surrounding districts. Capozzoli helps with lesson plans and finds ways to relate them to other classes Vassar students might be taking — urban studies, for example. “We encourage students to put their own slant on things,” she says.

According to Capozzoli, working with younger students and having to teach science in clear and creative ways helps Vassar students exercise muscles they’ll surely use no matter which careers they choose. “It gives Vassar students real hands-on experience,” says Capozzoli. “I tell them, ‘It’s not only prospective teachers who can benefit from the experience, but any student who will be doing public speaking or is interested in environmental issues.’

“Hearing the children’s questions, and watching their faces as they perform experiments and process information, have been extremely rewarding for my personal growth and enjoyment. I am so pleased to see their eyes light up and to see their curiosity lead them to question and wonder. Observing their delight has been my pleasure.”

James Challey and Jeff Kosmacher: Creating Synergy

Members of Vassar’s Campus-Community Advisory Committee (CCAC) are quick to acknowledge the college's decades-long efforts to engage with the Poughkeepsie community before the creation of the committee in the spring of 2007. They also acknowledge that these efforts were diffuse and that there was little coordination (and information sharing) between the individuals and groups involved.

Early in her tenure, President Catharine (Cappy) Hill called for the formation of the committee, comprising employees and students. “The basic charge from Cappy was to find out what Vassar is doing in the community and also how the community is involved in the campus, and then to look at the ways in which it could be made better and more efficient,” recalls James Challey, senior lecturer in Science, Technology, and Society, who co-chairs the committee with Jeff Kosmacher, director of media relations and public affairs.

(l-r) Jim Challey and Jeff Kosmacher

Through their research, committee members discovered some common problems. One was an overlap of programs. “We had different groups that were trying to do the same thing, often at the same time,” says Challey. “And lots of cases in which groups were reinventing the wheel. They had bright ideas and lots of energy but were simply unaware that someone else at Vassar had already laid some groundwork.”

After surveying the college's numerous community engagement activities, the committee found there was a huge focus on working with the public schools, particularly with the Poughkeepsie school district. “So early on we organized an 'Education Summit' where we got together everyone who was doing work in the schools and that was a real eye-opener,” says Challey. “A lot of people looked around the room and a light bulb went off about just how many people were already engaged in that work.” Coordination of school-based activities has begun to be institutionalized through the hiring in 2009 of an education outreach coordinator.

The need to more easily share information about Vassar’s community-oriented activities eventually led the Campus-Community Advisory Committee and the Office of College Relations to create the Neighbors website, a central source of information about an array of programs that connect the college and the larger community, and about how Vassar students and employees can get involved. The site also serves the public by providing information about resources such as the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve and the free weekly viewing sessions held during the school year at the Class of '51 Observatory.

The committee also went about tackling another problem: transportation. “We learned that people wanted to do things in the community, but didn't have a reliable system to travel back and forth,” Challey notes. The committee formed a transportation sub-committee to examine the issue, and eventually proposed to President Hill and college's senior officers that the college run a shuttle bus to and from downtown Poughkeepsie.

Kosmacher, who closely works with the bus company that operates the service, says, “The Poughkeepsie Shuttle speaks to the larger purpose of our committee — to help the various things that Vassar people are doing in the community to be done more effectively. And that’s really what Cappy wanted us to do, to look at things at a macro level, to ask the people who are involved in community-related activities, ‘What are the issues you commonly face?’” Transportation, he notes, was a topic that arose among a wide variety of people interviewed in the early months of the committee. “It was clearly a collective need,” says Kosmacher.

According to Kosmacher, upwards of 400 riders per week use the Poughkeepsie Shuttle, on buses that run only four hours per day. It's free to ride on the loop service, which stops at or within walking distance of Poughkeepsie Middle and High School (where students serve as tutors, student teachers, and interns), The Family Partnership Center, a hub for local social service organizations, as well as the Poughkeepsie train station and a variety of downtown businesses, eateries, and entertainment and arts venues. A slightly modified weekend service also includes stops at a shopping mall and grocery store.

The shuttle is an interim solution, notes Challey, adding “The college has no desire to permanently be in the bus business.” He and Kosmacher have been meeting with city and county officials to see if the route might be incorporated into the public transit system. “Not only would this accomplish our goal of a daylong transportation link between the campus and downtown, but we also hope the public would use the new bus route to more frequently enjoy the college's activities and resources,” he says.

In February 2010, the Campus-Community Advisory Committee received its first major recognition, the annual "Community Builder" award from Hudson River Housing. Challey and Kosmacher, who helped the Poughkeepsie-based non-profit to improve a struggling section of downtown Poughkeepsie by participating in planning discussions and enlisting other Vassar people and resources to support the effort, accepted the award for Vassar.

Photo Credits: Pittman, Noah Fowler '09; Harriford and Roylance, Tamar Thibodeau; Vassar Farm, Johanna DeKrey-Hotaling; Challey and Kosmacher,  Janet Gray

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