College grants bolster community ties

Many members of the Vassar community may not be aware that there is an active funding program that seeks to support local community projects. This resource is the Vassar Good Neighbors Fund, which grants money to students, faculty and staff who have partnered with a local organization. The fund, however, faces one major obstacle: lack of visibility on campus.

Frances Daly Fergusson, Vassar’s ninth president, established the Vassar Good Neighbors Fund in 2001. Applicants to the fund are able to receive short-term or long-term grants, which are a one-time or three-year award, respectively.

Last semester, $15,000 in grants were awarded, including two $5,000 projects. Currently, the endeavor is overseen by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and the applications for funding are reviewed by Assistant Professor of Education Colette Cann, one of the faculty supervisors of the fund, and student intern Sarah Murphy ’14.

“It’s really about allowing students or faculty or staff to kind of take that experimentation and try out a new project,” said Murphy.

The Good Neighbors Committee works to provide local non-profit organizations and individuals in the area with the support needed create and further their community projects.

One local association that receives funding from the Vassar Good Neighbors Committee is Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, an anti-foreclosure community advocacy group.

Based in Poughkeepsie and founded in 2011 after the Occupy Poughkeepsie movement, the organization works with homeowners at risk of or in foreclosure by promoting public direct action and providing legal support. Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson applied and received a three-year grant last semester and is using the Vassar Good Neighbors grant to pay for the costs of the outreach they do.

This award will allow them to raise awareness so that homeowners facing foreclosure know they have somewhere to turn. Additionally, the organization works to collaborate with regional and national allies to attract further funding from individual donors and foundations.

“The application process for the larger grant was smooth and very helpful for our long-term visioning,” described Jonathan Bix ’14, who applied for the grant on Mid-Hudson’s behalf. “The many questions we had about the application were quickly and thoroughly answered. We were forced to seriously plan our work for the year and consider what might change over future years, and we received helpful feedback about our proposal,” Bix wrote in an emailed statement.

“Our short-term goals are to keep developing the leadership of homeowners, conducting political education and bringing in new homeowners and winning homes,” wrote Bix.

He continued, “Our long-term goals are to become a permanent organization capable of doing base-building organizing around multiple issues impacting Poughkeepsie and the surrounding area.”

The grant is not only for student applicants, but available for staff as well. Alumna Rachel Gorman ’12, a Fellow in the Education Department, is one staff member who has been successful in her Good Neighbors application. Last semester, VAST (Vassar After School Tutoring) received a short-term grant in order to purchase new technology for the after school program.

Each semester, fifty Vassar mentors work with students grades 6 through 8 at Poughkeepsie Middle School. On Mondays and Wednesdays, the college students help the middle schoolers with their homework. Some of the assignments require the youth to do outside research, which can pose problems for the many students who don’t have access to computers in their homes.

“There is a tremendous skills gap between students enrolled in VAST who attend underfunded, urban public schools, and students in wealthier school districts who have greater access to computers and can develop these skills that will help them succeed at college-level work,” wrote Gorman in an emailed statement.

Currently, Gorman is buying tablets with keyboards for VAST, as well as other technological tools that will allow the students to research information needed to finish homework. They will also be able to practice academic skills through the use of typing, word games and algebra apps.

Wrote Gorman, “The tablets are a start to building a technology library that Vassar College Urban Education Initiative (VCUEI) outreach programs can use to help enrich the education of Poughkeepsie public school students. My Fellowship ends in June, so I hope to pass these tablets on to the next Fellow as a legacy for students to use after I leave.”

In addition to awarding these short-term and long-term grants, the Good Neighbors Committee has the means to support other projects. For example, every semester, funds are used to support a professional development workshop for Poughkeepsie teachers, allowing them to gain continuing educational credit. The topic of the latest workshop was entitled “Food, Land, and People,” and focused on how to incorporate environmental sustainability and agriculture into the classroom. All of this is in an effort to continue to support the Poughkeepsie community.

“I definitely think that it’s about students, not really about going into Poughkeepsie and starting a project, it’s about forming that partnership,” said Murphy. “There are a lot of resources at Vassar that we have and a lot of things students are learning. And then there are a lot of things that they can learn from residents of Poughkeepsie.”

Gorman expressed a similar sentiment,

“There are many Vassar students, administrators and faculty members who have done amazing projects to collaborate with people in the Poughkeepsie community. Their work should be celebrated and I am glad that things like the Good Neighbors Fund exist to acknowledge and encourage successful community partnerships,” she wrote.

Students’ social justice advocacy has the potential to snowball into enduring enterprises.

“Being embedded in a community’s ongoing struggles and attempting to be a part of building long term projects that can be led by community members themselves is critical,” wrote Bix.

So far, most applicants have been successful in securing funds, provided that their project mission aligns with what the Vassar Good Neighbors Fund supports. This semester, the Good Neighbors committee hopes to continue to provide assistance for students and staff in their endeavors and is still accepting applications.

Gorman believed that one can learn a lot from engagement with the Mid-Hudson Valley.

She wrote, “It can be an eye-opening learning experience to interact and bond with people outside of the Vassar bubble.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *