Community Fellows Go Outside Whitman Bubble

Lorah Steichen

By the time they are juniors and seniors, most Whitman students are ready to start implementing the skills they’re developing in the classroom in a professional setting.

Matt Banderas '04/Office of Communications
Matt Banderas ’04/Office of Communications

The Whitman Community Fellows, an internship program run through the Student Engagement Center and funded by the Sherwood Trust, gives students the opportunity to do just that. The program, which has just welcomed its second year, connects juniors and seniors with local organizations for a year-long paid internship experience. 

“The Fellow program offers the students that are selected to participate not only a full academic year of very high level professional work at a very exciting organization in Walla Walla, but also a year of professional development and reflection,” said Assistant Dean for Student Engagement Noah Leavitt.

Leavitt, along with Career Development Director Susan Buchanan, developed the program last year, modeling it after AmeriCorps. In addition to the 10 hours each week that the fellows spend at their specific worksite, participants engage in professional development sessions and group visits to each fellow’s workplace.

“We thought, well let’s not only have students out there, but let’s also have this additional support, education, reflection, group development, because we know that those are all the best practices when it comes to having students involved in something of this duration” said Leavitt.

The fellowships allow students to apply what they’re learning in the classroom to the real-world workplace. Recent alumna Sydney Conway, ’13, who graduated with a sociology degree last spring and is now enrolled at the University of Washington Law School, served as a fellow at the Juvenile Justice Center last year.

“For me, the fellowship could truly be defined as ‘experiential learning,'” said Conway in an email. “As a sociology major I studied the implications of inequality and the extent to which individuals are influenced by external forces. However, I had only studied this inequality and not seen or experienced it firsthand. While interacting with young students in Walla Walla, the inequality and its implications was visible in a way that no academic article or textbook could describe.” 

The work that the fellows did as interns last year not only benefitted their own academic and professional development, but also the greater Walla Walla community. This led to a great demand from local organizations for increased fellowship positions.

Matt Banderas '04/Office of Communications
Matt Banderas ’04/Office of Communications

“The community organizations understand how talented Whitman students are and what they can offer, and so when the invitation for a free, year-long, high-level talented person to come in and make something happen for an organization is put out there, a lot of organizations want to jump on that,” said Leavitt.

In order to better address this demand, the SEC changed the selection process for community partners.

“This year [the organizations] had to apply. Last year we just sort of picked some. This year we opened it to a wide range of community partners,” said Buchanan. 

The SEC received 45 proposals from a wide range of community organizations for fellowship positions. Those selected represent the diversity of academic and professional interests on campus, ranging from Walla Walla County Public Health to the Small Business Development Center or the Blue Mountain Land Trust.

The success of the program and the demand for fellows has led to growth of the program in its second year.

“Last year was the first year that we did this and we had eight students and they had remarkable, really transformative experiences. This year we have 13,” said Buchanan.

Matt Banderas '04/Office of Communications
Matt Banderas ’04/Office of Communications

In order to finance the additional fellowship positions, the SEC redistributed the funding provided by the Sherwood Trust, reducing the amount set aside for single semester internships. Jock Edwards is the president of The Sherwood Trust, which is a local philanthropic nonprofit.

“The mission of the Sherwood Trust is to build the capacity of our community,” said Edwards. “Students have a huge impact with what they do with the local nonprofit organizations. So it really is a win-win for the community as well as for the Whitman College students.”