Grads enter nonprofits in town

With spring break and the class of 2015’s graduation approaching quickly, the job search is on for the soon-to-be alumnae. Many will find opportunities near home and in New York City, but some will likely choose to put down roots in the Hudson River Valley.

In recent years, many graduates have chosen to stay in or around Poughkeepsie. Two generations of these trailblazers were willing to speak about their experiences as permanent resident of upstate New York, and how they decided to stay here after Vassar.

Natalie Ward ’14 is a recent graduate who takes pride in her activist root at Vassar, which led her to her current position as Orange County Organizer for Community Voices Heard, based in Newburg, New York. Before settling in Newburg as a Vassar grad, though, Ward had a “transformative experience” when she reconnected with her mother in Togo, West Africa after 17 years apart.

Ward learned how deeply she had internalized racist narratives and learned to redirect her experiences toward growth in her personal and academic life, as well as activist work.

As a sociology major, Ward said she “tried to intellectualize [her] experiences in sociology classes on colonialism in Africa and racial formations in the Americas.”

Soon after her trip, and due to her experiences on and after the trip, Ward threw herself into the efforts of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, an anti-displacement organization.

Of the participation in the organization she said, “Getting involved in Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, was a response to a process of being politicized; growing up biracial in a white family, going to Togo, sorting through the contradictions at Vassar.”

Ward added that her current job as an organizer allows her to help build power in low-income community through building and fighting for policy changes, funding shifts, and new programs that would positively impact the lives of those involved.

The world of community organizing also called the name of Elizabeth Celaya ’01. Celaya is currently employed as the Director of Organizational & Community Development for Hudson River Housing.

When asked about her role in the housing project, Celaya said, “I oversee our Community Building & Engagement Department, and also help chart the course for future growth at the agency through strategic planning, partnership development, and fundraising.” Unlike Ward, though, Celaya grew up in the Dutchess County area, which she said was definitely a contributing factor to her after-graduation destination.

Additionally, Celaya was inspired to pursue a career in community development through her fieldwork experiences at Vassar and in the Poughkeepsie community.

“I did field work for a year and a half at Grace Smith House, and had a Burnam Fellowship there between my junior and senior year.  That helped me get to know the local nonprofit community,” she said.

Graduating as a Latin American studies major, Celaya said her studies at Vassar have proved very helpful when working in the community.

She mentioned, “Understanding the culture and speaking Spanish have been huge assets in my position.”

Though a Bachelor of Arts alone prepares undergraduate students to take on the job market with a unique array of liberal arts skills, students often take advantage of extracurricular activities and the Vassar alumni network in order to secure post-undergraduate opportunities.

Ward used networks created through her involvement with Nobody Leaves. She said, “I happily took the position because I knew folks who needed and rode the bus and I was becoming more committed to staying and working in the region.”

When the fellowship ended, Ward applied to work with the organization in Newburg. Celaya found connections through her year and half of fieldwork at the Grace Smith House through the Burnam Fellowship. After graduation she interned at a local planning department, which she discovered through the career development office.

Luckily, a position opened up soon in the fall and she found an opportunity to continue similar work to what she had done while at Vassar with the Hudson River Housing organization.

While much effort is put into transitioning freshman into life at Vassar, graduates must tackle the transition into post-graduate life. Many students come out with a new perspective—particularly new Hudson River Valley residents feel a new perspective on the area and Vassar’s presence.

Said Celaya, “I like having the dual perspective of having been a student and working in the local nonprofit world.”

Celaya has realized in her 14 years out of Vassar that Vassar is an important anchor institution for Poughkeepsie and has heard the community express pride in the college. Though, there is work that could be done by the school.

“It would be great to see the college invest in the revitalization of downtown,” she said, “and the impact that having students active living and learning downtown would make could really be a game-changer for Poughkeepsie.”

Ward said that her transition from Vassar student to area resident has helped her realize that Vassar students shouldn’t ask if they should become involved in the Poughkeepsie community, but rather how.

“I think its been important in my development as an organizer to be honest and self-critical while at the same time,” she said.

Both Ward and Celaya say they plan on staying in the area and continuing to cultivate their own roots through community organizing and a Vassar perspective.

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