On April 7, Vassar will welcome local kindergarteners and elementary school students to Joss Beach for its annual Spring Festival, which will include a bouncy house, cookie decorating, face painting, an egg hunt and other arts and crafts. The festival is being put on by Associate Professor and Chair of Education Colette Cann, and the Vassar Good Neighbors Committee. The Vassar College Urban Education Initiative (VCUEI) is also helping with the event by inviting local schools. The Spring Fest is part of a larger effort on Vassar’s behalf to involve locals with the school and to get Vassar students involved with Poughkeepsie.
Good Neighbors Committee Intern Kevin Fernandez ’20 commented on the event via email, “Families and children will see that Vassar is open to the idea of engaging with the community and welcoming [local students] to our campus.” The festival will serve as a way to connect local students to Vassar through art and is part of the The Good Neighbors Committee’s mission to enrich the Poughkeepsie community by providing educational and recreational events and funding to local students. Fernandez commented on the role of the Good Neighbors Committee, “GN provides grants to Vassar College students, student groups, staff and faculty, local community organizations [and] individuals who work in partnership from Arlington and Poughkeepsie to support innovative ideas in the areas of: food systems, the environment, urban gardening, education, mental and physical health, housing, community organizing initiatives, and the arts.” He highlighted how past grants have gone to everything from tutoring programs, to families in need of funds to prevent foreclosure of their homes, to field trips for youth to experience the arts.
Assistant Dean for Campus Life and Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Reverend Samuel Speers pointed out how the event is particularly focused on using creativity and art to bring the two communities together. He commented, “[I]t’s a creative collaboration between the College and the local community, and another way Professor Colette Cann from the Education Department (and a former Good Neighbors Partnerships committee member) brings capacity-building leadership to the Vassar campus and the wider community of which we are a part.”
The Spring Festival and events like it are important for Vassar to host, partly due to the huge disparity between Vassar’s resources and those that local Poughkeepsie schools can provide. According to the Vassar Urban Education Initiative website, Poughkeepsie High School’s graduation rate is 59 percent, which is much lower than New York State’s standard rate of 80 percent. Many students in Poughkeepsie come from lower-income families, and likewise, the local schools struggle with obtaining sufficient funding. The VCUEI’s goals are to offer community access to Vassar resources (such as academic and technological resources), cultivate local students’ interest in the school and get Vassar students involved in the community.
One of the ways to achieve these goals is to start inviting very young kids to Vassar, which is what the Spring Festival intends to do. The Urban Education Initiative has been reaching out to local elementary schools such as Warring Elementary, Kruger Elementary, Morse Elementary, Krieger Elementary, Gov. George Clinton School and Poughkeepsie Middle School, inviting their students to attend the event. In addition, since 2003, the Initiative has been spearheading three larger projects involving these and other schools. The projects are Vassar English Language Learners Outcome Program (VELLOP), Vassar After School Tutoring Program (VAST) and Exploring College (EC). They are all aimed at getting Vassar’s students to help local students achieve academic success through either fostering literacy in children, tutoring high schoolers or helping students apply to college. VELLOP coordinator Giselle Sanchez Huerta ‘18 commented on the Initiative, “These programs and all the work that the Community-Engaged Learning Office does are great ways for Vassar to get more involved with the Poughkeepsie community.”
Sanchez Huerta especially found that connecting Vassar students to other local scholars was a particularly powerful aspect of the Urban Education Initiative. She commented in an email statement, “The power of representation is something we discuss often on Vassar’s campus, and through VCUEI we can apply that to working with scholars. We encourage students to build meaningful relationships with the scholars they work with, bonding over similar interests or experiences, so scholars can not only feel connected, but also to be able to see themselves as a college student/ in college.”
Whether through educational programs or art-centered events, Vassar has put a concerted emphasis on reaching out to the Poughkeepsie community. However, that does not take away from the fact that Vassar can often feel very insular, and while the school tries to reach out to the community, it is also the responsibility of Vassar students to get involved in these programs or make connections with locals through their own means. Tabraiz Lodhi ‘20, who is currently participating in a fieldwork program, commented, “I feel like students can always get more involved in the off-campus community. I’ve realized through my fieldwork experiences that there is always work to do that both students and locals would benefit from.”
Fernandez perceives the Spring Festival as a great way for Vassar students to get involved. “Everyone at Vassar College knows that the ‘Vassar Bubble’ exists. We have a lot of amazing organizations at Vassar College, from the Barefoot Monkeys to The Underground, and many of them do spectacular events for the community,” Fernandez said. “However, we should do more for the community in order to pop the bubble.”
Like in years past, Spring Fest will not only be a heartwarming scene, but also a cheerful reminder to Vassar students to continue striving for greater involvement with life off-campus. Fernandez extended a welcome to students who want to be more involved with the Poughkeepsie community, remarking, “There is an annual Halloween Fest for the Poughkeepsie community and [it] is similar to Spring Fest but with a Halloween theme and a costume contest. If you want to volunteer in Halloween Fest, there will be emails, flyers, and other forms of publicity next semester to sign up!”