From Bryn Mawr College to the Philly Fellows Program: An Interview with Two Alumnae

Posted August 5th, 2009 at 11:29 am.

by Megan Bailey and Rebecca Woodruff

Megan Bailey and Rebecca Woodruff didn’t go far when they left Bryn Mawr College last May for the Philly Fellows program, and yet as fellows this year, they have had experiences they might not have imagined as students. Philly Fellows is a year-long fellowship program that offers recent college graduates the opportunity to work in capacity-building positions in a range of non-profit organizations in the city. Fellows receive housing, a living stipend, and various leadership and professional development opportunities. This year, Megan is working as a Finance and Development Associate at ACHIEVEability, which provides single-parent, formerly homeless families with housing and self-sufficiency services. Rebecca is a Financial Development Associate at the American Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania, where she is gaining general development experience in areas such as grant writing, special events, and donor cultivation and is working to reengage a younger generation in the work of the organization.

Recently, a member of the Civic Matters editorial team, Julie Zaebst, had an opportunity to talk with Megan and Rebecca about their experiences as Philly Fellows and to find out how a biology major becomes a grant writer and what the connections are between archaeology and civic engagement, among other things. Below is an excerpt from this interview.

Julie: I’m wondering what connections you see between your experiences at Bryn Mawr broadly speaking and the work that you’re now doing?

Megan: Okay, well I would say first of all that I was very involved in the CEO [Civic Engagement Office] during my [undergraduate years] … so everything I did was connected to non-profit work for the most part. And very specifically I took the Effective Grantsmanship seminar [a non-credit course in grant research and grant writing offered by the CEO in the fall 2006]. That was excellent preparation because now I do work on grant reports and things like that, and … that’s actually sort of what piqued my interest in the business side [of non-profits], in the fundraising, because all I really knew [before] was the direct service aspect from doing Saturdays of Service, from the [Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)] campaign, from working at Overbrook [High School]. I really didn’t know anything about how the business side was actually run and how the fundraising happens, so that grant writing course was really valuable for that [reason].

As for courses and things, in my anthropology courses I focused on applied anthropology and public anthropology … which really emphasized civic engagement and creating a link between academics and the public, so that sort of helped, too.

Julie: And what about you, Rebecca? What are the connections you see between what you did as a student and what you’re doing now?

Rebecca: The connection that stands out first and foremost in my mind is having been a Praxis participant through one of my classes. I loved my Praxis experience. I was taking “The Sociology of AIDS” with Judy Porter, and I was placed at The Philadelphia AIDS Consortium [TPAC], which is a Center City HIV/AIDS organization, for the internship component of the course.

And, I mean, I had a great experience with Praxis, but … it’s funny to compare my experiences with Praxis and Philly Fellows, because they … couldn’t be more different in terms of size, mission, structure, and things like that. I would say that they’re very much linked in that the basic work skills I took away from my Praxis experience at TPAC were useful in application and in practice at the Red Cross. In talking with other recent graduates, especially from liberal arts colleges, I find that most people struggle in their first year with understanding these cultural norms of the work place, and so, I think that although the skills that I developed at TPAC are very different than the skills that I need at the Red Cross, understanding work culture and other tacit knowledge is what I found to be the most useful.

Working at the Red Cross, I don’t find that I’m day-to-day using the actual facts I picked up in my classes so much as … critical thinking skills, the motivation to come up with and follow through with projects, and competitive writing skills. I think that there’s a tendency for liberal arts graduates to enter the work force and feel kind of like they’ve lost their bearings. But just sort of as a word of encouragement … I think it’s a lot easier to pick up on skills like accounting and finances and grant writing than it is to pick up on skills like writing well or thinking critically.

Julie: What do you think is the most valuable contribution that you are making to the community that you’re serving right now and why?

Megan: Well unfortunately, I don’t really have direct contact with any of our clients most of the time, which is the one thing that’s sort of troubling about working with fundraising. So I guess I’m helping with development and fundraising so I’m helping to raise money that will eventually provide them with the services they need, but … I do feel disconnected from the families we serve. … And the other thing I could say is that a lot of my work has to do with internal operations, organization of databases, network systems, and things like that, which help the business run more efficiently, which will help serve the clients more efficiently.

Julie: How is that for you as someone who has traditionally done direct service? Is it tough … does it feel less rewarding somehow, is it kind of a nice break from having constant client contact which can be really emotionally draining? How … are you feeling about it so far?

Megan: Yeah, I would say all of those, actually. It’s definitely been a big change. … There are opportunities at ACHIEVEability and … the volunteer manager said I could do tutoring or all of these other things. I was like, oh, that’s great, I can have both direct and indirect service experience, but after working an eight-hour day, I just don’t have the energy to spend two hours tutoring someone. Because I spend so much time at ACHIEVEability, I’ve been looking to do direct service outside of it. But I do enjoy the sort of development and organizational work and having these discrete projects that I work on that have a beginning and ending. That appeals to me.

Julie: What do you think is the most valuable thing that you’re taking away or have taken away [from your experience as a Philly Fellow] so far?

Rebecca: Well, I definitely … can tick off on my fingers the software that I didn’t know how to use [before]. That’s great, and those are skills I don’t think I would have ever learned at Bryn Mawr.

Julie: Definitely not. You’re not going to take a class on Raiser’s Edge!

Rebecca: Exactly. This question sort of addresses my motivation for applying to Philly Fellows at all. Let me backtrack and explain myself. I knew at the time of graduation that what I wanted to do with my life was public health, which is a massive field, and I knew that I couldn’t go to grad school for a couple of years. I wanted to get at least two years of work experience, a requirement for application at a lot of the graduate programs I’m interested in. So I thought, what better a way to spend my year before applying to grad school than to learn about how non-profits, which do a huge chunk of the public health work in this country, continue to exist year after year? So I went into the program fully aware that Philly Fellows would be a behind-the-scenes experience rather than a direct service experience, but I saw that as an asset. [Already] I feel like I met that goal, just in terms of having a greater, much deeper appreciation for all of the work that goes on to keep these non-profits going, for the work that they do and the people they serve.

Julie: So to make a jump to the other piece of the Philly Fellows program that I’m familiar with—I realize that there are probably additional facets of it that I don’t really know a whole lot about—but I know that you live in a house with other fellows, and that you [two] actually live together, so … in what ways has living with the fellows enhanced your experiences and what are the challenges that it’s presented, if any?

Megan: Well, I would say first of all, one of the best things to me was it helped with the transition out of college. I can’t imagine living in an apartment by myself, not that I would have been able to afford that anyway, but just the idea of living alone after having been surrounded by such a close community and roommates … wouldn’t have been a pleasant experience. So it just helped ease that transition from college into the real world. Also we share a lot of our experiences from work, and we let each other know when events are happening, and we invite each other to events, and so we’re able to support each other that way. Not only within in the house, but there are 20 [Philly Fellows], so that’s a whole pool of … resources and opportunities for volunteer work and events and things like that, so I really enjoy that aspect. And then challenges I would say … we haven’t really had any interpersonal conflict … but just things like keeping the house clean is challenging. I don’t really have too much to complain about, which is good.

Julie: What about you, Rebecca?

Rebecca: The residential component was a huge factor for me as well in deciding to apply to Philly Fellows at all. Like Megan, the idea of living on my own after college was not appealing. It just seemed like one too many adjustments to make, especially considering that for the majority of my life my primary identity had been as a student. I was anticipating graduating and no longer being in academia to be a huge, huge transition. So why add on managing your life alone? And what I found was sort of as could be expected. Although all of us in our house were working at very different agencies doing very different work in non-profits that addressed very different needs in the community, both the challenges and the rewards of working in the non-profit community are pretty consistent across the board. So to me, the value of this part of the program is having sort of that companionship and camaraderie you find in a residential, community-living situation. My housemates have been a sounding board, really sympathetic ears to help sort out all the stuff you’re dealing with since you’re in transition from school to the work place.

Julie: How do you think that you’ll carry forward your civic engagement after your year of service with the program?

Megan: Well, actually I have thought about it a lot. I’m in the process of applying to graduate schools right now, so I plan to start in the fall of 2009 if all goes well. I read this book that was very influential for me called Public Benefits of Archaeology, and there was another one called Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement, and then also another one called Archaeology as Political Action, so I’m very interested in … how archaeology can be used as a tool of social justice, which is a very new field. For instance, archaeologists can use their findings to promote a more truthful, inclusive representation of the past or to address socially relevant topics such as racism, heritage, and identity or to advocate on behalf of descendant or indigenous communities that have a stake in the sites and histories in which archaeologists are involved.

So after spending a year doing Philly Fellows, I’m sure that the program will give me a lot of experience, and up to this point now, I know for sure that I do want to keep in the direction of merging those two [interests]. So in my application I’ve been emphasizing that I’m doing this year of service now and I want to use graduate school as a way to figure out how to merge these two interests together. I’m really interested in public archaeology and in working with the public and in figuring out the best methods of presenting archaeological knowledge to the public.

Julie: Wow. I don’t know that I would have seen those connections, but it’s really a part of envisioning where you’re headed.

Megan: Yes, all part of the master plan.

Julie: And what about you?

Rebecca: Well, like I said before, I’m planning on going into public health, and the two options that I see before me are either going into public service and working with local governments or working in the non-profit sector. And so I definitely see service in my future professionally. Public health and civic engagement pretty much go hand in hand.

By the way, I think that Megan’s doing the coolest thing in the world, putting together archaeology and civic engagement. She was telling me about how looking back on her transcript and resumé and stuff, she’s flip-flopped her whole life between community service and archaeology. I just think it’s the coolest thing in the world, merging those skills.

Julie: So it really is part of the master plan, Megan.

Megan: Well, actually, it is and it isn’t, because I only recently realized [this] when I was writing my personal statement for applications. I was looking through my resumé to see what I wanted to highlight, and I realized one summer I went to an archaeology field school, and then the next summer I got a grant from Bryn Mawr to work for a non-profit to do an internship, and then the next summer I went back to the field school, and now I’m working for Philly Fellows. And so I’ve just been going back and forth, and it really hit home that this is what I want to do.

Rebecca: Just speaking more globally, I really think you can do that with any field. I mean, I don’t think that there’s any field that’s off-limits when it comes to viewing what you do professionally through a responsible, civically engaged lens.

Megan Bailey ’08 earned her A.B. in anthropology. After completing her term of service with Philly Fellows, she intends to pursue graduate study in anthropology and historical archaeology.

Rebecca Woodruff ’08 earned her A.B. in biology with a concentration in neural and behavioral sciences. After her year as a Philly Fellow in the humanitarian services division of the American Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania, she plans to work for one more year and then apply to graduate school to study public health.

Filed under: Issue 3 by Julie Zaebst

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