The Princetern Point of View: Two Undergraduates Explore PP55 Fellowships in Chicago

The Princeternship Program is a career exploration program that offers Princeton undergraduates the unique opportunity to start investigating a career field of interest and make professional connections by spending time with alumni in their workplaces. Both Sophie Huber ’12 and Meicen Sun ’12 share below about their experience shadowing PP55 fellows in Chicago this winter.

Sophie Huber ’12

During my three-day Princeternship, I had the chance to visit Chicago, a major hub of Project 55’s AlumniCorps fellowship program, where I shadowed recent fellows Kristen Molloy ’08 and Whitney Spalding ’07 at the Chicago Public Schools Office of New Schools. ONS authorizes and oversees all charter, contract, and performance schools in Chicago. Kristen and Whitney were hired by ONS after completing Project 55 fellowships there, and they had a lot of knowledge to share about charter schools and their role in Chicago education.

When my co-Princetern (Destiny Ortega ’12) and I arrived for our first day at the office, Kristen gave us a presentation on new schools and the nature of ONS’s work. We learned about Renaissance 2010, an initiative by Mayor Daley to open 100 new schools between 2005 and 2010, and heard about some of the challenges ONS has been facing since its recent budget cuts. We then spent some time helping Kristen with her research projects. In Kristen’s work as Compliance Manager, she is responsible for evaluating schools and keeping them accountable for performance and adherence to protocol. We got started on a compliance data project, where our task was to create spreadsheets of compliance rates by school type and grade level. We also got a chance to meet with some of Kristen’s co-workers to discuss their roles in ONS’s work.

We spent most of our second day away from the office, beginning with our visit to two charter schools in the North Lawndale community. The first was the Catalyst Howland Elementary School, one of two schools in Chicago’s Catalyst network. The Catalyst schools emphasize respect, values, and character-building in combination with a rigorous curriculum. We began our visit with an informational meeting, where we met the principal and other school leaders. After the meeting we took a tour of the school. Since college matriculation is a huge focus at Catalyst (as is the case at many charters), Destiny and I said some words to the older students about our Princeton experiences and encouraged them to apply.

The second school we visited was North Lawndale College Prep, which shares a building with Catalyst. NLCP had the day off school when we came, so we didn’t see many students there, but we got a chance to talk to President John Horan about the school’s philosophy and approach. NLCP is also highly college-focused, sending almost 90% of their students to postsecondary institutions (they rank #1 for college graduation among Chicago’s non-selective public high schools). The school emphasizes non-violence, replacing security guards and metal detectors with a special “peace” curriculum. After speaking with President Horan, we toured the school; it was mostly empty, but we did get to see some great murals by the students.

We spent the afternoon learning about charter-related nonprofits in meetings with Stacy McAuliffe ’98, of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS), and Rachel Ksenyak, of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). Stacy is herself a former P55 fellow; when we met her, she had just started a new job as the Chief Operating Officer of INCS. INCS is committed to supporting and advocating for charter schools, whether by facilitating the establishment of new schools, offering education and assistance to managers of existing schools, or lobbying for charter-friendly public policy. Stacy told us all about INCS’s roles and described her own journey to her current work in the charter movement. She gave us lots of useful information about charter-related organizations and opportunities in Chicago and beyond. It was great to learn about INCS from such a well-connected fellow Princetonian.

I started Day Three working more on Kristen’s compliance data project; this time I was able to look at how several other factors correlated with compliance, including school type and the years schools were founded. Then I had coffee with former P55 fellow Colleen Poynton ’09, who had a lot of great advice and knowledge about post-college work in nonprofit and social enterprise. After graduating from Princeton, she did a Project 55 fellowship at Bethel New Life, a community development corporation in Chicago’s West Side. Now she is undertaking a second P55 fellowship at a local social enterprise called Investing in Communities. Colleen explained how IIC endeavors to drive market-based philanthropy by connecting socially-minded merchants with customers.

In the afternoon I had the opportunity to talk more with our second Princeton host, Whitney Spalding ’07. Whitney is singlehandedly in charge of determining which new charter proposals will be recommended for authorization. When she described the process to me, it became clear that Whitney actually has to balance lots of outside opinions in making her decisions, from consultants’ advice to community preferences. Her job is very demanding, but essential to ONS’s work.

I had a wonderful time at my Princeternship, and I’m so grateful to have had this chance. I was able to explore the Windy City, experience work at a nonprofit, and learn firsthand about a great Princeton fellowship opportunity. I’ll definitely be keeping Project 55 in mind as I consider options for after graduation!

Meicen Sun ’12

My first day as a Princetern started off with the weekly Princeton Project 55 seminar in downtown Chicago, which was attended by other PP55 fellows and staff. The seminars were intended to be educational, informative, and at the same time a means to keep everyone in PP55 connected as a group. This week’s seminar featured guest speaker, activist Bill Ayers, who gave us a talk on public service in today’s U.S., especially with regard to the role of the individual in a democratic society. After the talk, I followed my coworker Andrew Kinaci, a PP55 fellow at NLEN, to take the blue subway line which would take us to the neighborhood of North Lawndale—one of the most poverty-stricken and crime-infested areas of Chicago. The office of NLEN was a small and compact house that stood alone in a fairly deserted and worn down district. It also served as the factory and workshop of Sweet Beginnings, LLC—a social enterprise under NLEN that employed the formerly incarcerated to manufacture its unique beeline® skincare products with locally produced organic materials. My direct supervisor, a Princeton alumnus Michael Malecek, proceeded to show me around the office and acquainted me with staff members and clients. He also gave me a tour of the office’s backyard where beehives were kept. Michael then introduced me to Ms. Brenda Palms Barber—Executive Director of NLEN and CEO of Sweet Beginnings. Before long, I began working on my main project as a Princetern—drafting a policy paper addressed to Chicago government, to appeal for a revision of a recent ordinance that would restrict urban agriculture in Chicago, and to explain the advantages of urban agriculture which provided the basis for many small-scale social enterprises like Sweet Beginnings. The day culminated into my making a closing announcement through the general paging system at the end of the day, as Michael suggested. Andrew jokingly said that I was now officially an NLEN employee.

Today, my first task was to help our clients with their resumes. I stayed in the computer lab where they worked on their resumes and took any questions they might have. It was a delight to see that my limited knowledge nonetheless proved helpful to them. Since the clients’ employment with Sweet Beginnings was only transitional, another big part of NLEN’s work was to impart essential job search and interview skills to the clients to facilitate them in their long-term career plan and reentry into society. In the afternoon, I continued working on the policy paper in Michael’s office, where he would patiently take any questions I had regarding the history and background of NLEN. Later in the afternoon, I had a very pleasant and inspiring talk with NLEN Executive Director and Sweet Beginnings CEO Brenda, who shared with me her mission and vision of Sweet Beginnings, and basically anything and everything on social service in today’s world. Both Brenda and Michael pointed to me the immediate dangers that surrounded our office—drug-dealing and violence that happened literally right next-door. Yet in the middle of this there was Sweet Beginnings which served as a shelter and more: Even some patrons would not have imagined that the beeline® products they used were manufactured in this tiny office building, by people who, if not for this employment opportunity, might be (re-)exposed to the dangers of drugs and violence any moment. I was thrilled to know that Michael and Brenda would forward the edited version of my policy paper to be presented at an upcoming Chicago Zoning Committee meeting. It was an incredibly fulfilling two days that I spent at NLEN as a PP55 Princetern but more importantly, it touches my heart to know that however little I have done, it is having an impact. I am very glad and grateful for this invaluable opportunity to have worked with such amazing people for such an admirable cause.

The merely two-day experience with PP55 was well-planned and well-tailored for students like us who long to gain an idea of how public service works on a daily basis. Despite the relatively short duration, we were each allowed to have deep exploration of the particular sector, and to have meaningful contact with the professional personnel. The unsparing willingness of the PP55 fellows to share with us their professional experience and insight, as well as their exemplary work ethic both made our Princeternships an eye-opening and rewarding journey.

To learn more about the Princetern program, please visit http://www.princeton.edu/career/undergrads/special/princeternship/ . Please contact Helen Yu ’08 at fan.yu@alumni.princeton.edu for questions regarding the PP55 Princeternships initiative in Chicago.

New York Food Seminar by Reilly Kiernan ’10

Last week’s AlumniCorps seminar was a very engaging conversation about many aspects of the problems that exist in our food system—from nutrition, to health, to factory farming, the discussion was far-ranging.

The topic was “Sustainable Food and Public Health”, and the panelists attacked the topic from different points of view.  Dr. R. Gordon Douglas ‘55, Adjunct Professor of Medicine at Cornell and former President of Merck Vaccine Division, moderated the panel.  Douglas began by asking the two panelists to explain the problem of food and sustainability sat they saw it.

David Benzaquen, a former animal rights activist, provided a well-researched presentation replete with statistics about the interlocking problems of public health, nutrition, environmental degradation, climate change, and animal welfare.  He emphasized the interconnectedness of the issue.

Nancy Easton ’88, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Wellness in the Schools, told a number of stories recounting anecdotes of the challenges she’d faced in her efforts to bring healthy food and nutritional education into inner city schools in New York City.   She shared her frustration with a school where the cafeteria offerings included healthy gourmet bean burritos, but children were still smuggling in Pringles and Oreo cookies while school staff sat by.

Douglas then encouraged the panelists to talk about potential solutions to this complex and far-reaching problem.  The discussion ranged from entreaties to reduce (and ideally cease) meat consumption to policy recommendations about corn and soy subsidies to an analysis of the role that class, tradition, and culture play in our food choices.

Though the panelists agreed that the problem can be daunting, the ultimate tone of the evening was one of guarded optimism.  Easton stressed the fact that there seems to be a groundswell of interest in this topic reflected everywhere from Michelle Obama’s initiatives to the popularity of farmers markets; Benzaquen talked about the fact that unlike other social justice issues, food and nutrition issues can be tackled through individual and incremental actions.

A Focus on Food

Sheila Mahoney and Gordon Douglas '55

Gordon Douglas ’55 and Sheila Mahoney are committed to communicating and helping to find solutions to the perils of industrial food production. They approached the Princeton AlumniCorps Board with a plan to help increase the number of fellowship placements focused on this important public health issue. Here is an update from Gordon and Sheila on their work to bring attention and expertise to this issue through our fellowship program:

Our idea for food fellowships was presented to the Board of Directors of AlumniCorps on September 25, 2010. The problem addressed in the proposal is modern industrial food production (“factory farming”) and its devastating effects on human health, the environment, and on animal welfare. The marked rise in obesity and Type II diabetes plus sustained high rates of cancer and heart disease are directly attributable to modern food production.

With the goal of creating fellowships in this very important area we have been approaching nonprofit organizations that are working on making the facts clear, increasing public awareness of the issues and promoting sustainable alternatives. Fellowships may be focused in a variety of areas including public policy, science, public health, alternative agriculture initiatives, and advocacy.

Some of the most active organizations with whom we are in contact are Pew Charitable Trusts, Union of Concerned Scientists, Center for a Liveable Future at Johns Hopkins, Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Humane Society of the United States. They have all been very enthusiastic about the program. Additional organizations that have indicated interest include universities, health departments, foundations, state and community food programs, and more. One of the officers at the Pew Charitable Trusts called this the “new environmental movement.”

We plan to continue to email you with updates and we welcome your involvement.

Gordon Douglas ‘55
Sheila Mahoney

For more information, email project55@alumnicorps.org

Project 55 Fellowship Program Update

The deadlines for the Project 55 fellowship program may be in December (3rd for organizations and 15th for students), but October and November are certainly the months to put things in motion. Area committee members have diligently been sending in organization contact information, students have been trickling in through our offices, and there is a steady stream of emails from people who want to know more. How does the process work? How can they take part?

The first major applicant information event of the month occurred on the first day of the month: Friday, October 1st was Princeton Career Services’ General Interest Career Fair. More than 80 students stopped by the Princeton AlumniCorps’ Project 55 table and filled out a sign-up sheet, including 74 seniors. The students had varying degrees of familiarity with Project 55 fellowships: from knowing just our name, to knowing current fellows, to knowing what organization they envisioned themselves at next year.

We also held an information session on October 12th that was well attended by approximately 40 enthusiastic students. Katie Ko ’09, Scott Welfel ’06 and Julianne Grasso ’10 spoke about their fellowship experiences in New York, Newark and Philadelphia respectively. We will be participating in three information sessions in November: a November 9th panel hosted by Career Services featuring staff from Princeton AlumniCorps as well as Princeton in Asia, Princeton in Africa, and Princeton in Latin America; a panel event hosted by the Princeton Varsity Club aimed at reaching student athletes on November 16th; and a Project 55 fellowships information session on November 17th.

Alumni interviews with fellowship applicants take place in Princeton in January. If you’re interested in helping to interview fellowship applicants or learning more, please contact Sara Gordon at project55@alumnicorps.org.