By Vanessa J. Ndege
Ms. Ndege is currently a Housing Services Specialist in the Housing Stabilization Department- Emergency Services Triage at the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services in Maryland. She will soon begin interning full-time with the Office of Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency. She earned her BA in Psychology and Studio Art (photography) from Washington and Lee University in 2012 and is a 2016 candidate for an MA in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology at Washington DC.
My involvement with the Shepherd Program began with a pre-orientation volunteer trip to Roanoke, Virginia; and during my first year of college I took the introductory Poverty 101 and 102 courses. It is from these educational and volunteer experiences that I gained a foundational understanding of why there is poverty in America. This knowledge enabled to me to approach my Shepherd internship, in the summer of 2009, from a critically introspective manner.
Vanessa Nedge (W&L 2012) is earning her MA in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Pictured here on a volunteer trip to Najayo, Dominican Republic in 2011.
My Shepherd internship brought me to the town of Helena/West-Helena, Arkansas. Once known for vibrant jazz festivals that drew crowds from across the country, the populations of the Helena, Arkansas, and West Helena, Arkansas, had shrunk so drastically that the two towns merged into one. Aside from the Wal-Mart, various fast food restaurants, and a few community based organizations, the town lacked much of an economy. It is here where I spent the summer after my first year of college, interning at the Boys and Girls Club of Phillips County.
The Club offered a vital resource to its community by providing affordable daycare, sports and educational centers, in an enriching environment of motivated counselors and quality facilities. Along with sharing some of the regular duties of other counselors at the Boys and Girls Club, I was able to create different programs to engage in with the children. I cherished my time with my co-workers and the children at the Club; I have very fond memories of stories told and experiences shared.
A great majority of the children at the Club were from lower income families and were African American. This was despite attempts by management to attract the town’s lower income Caucasian families that could have also greatly benefited from the Club’s services. For various reasons the town still has remnants of its segregation past. In my conversations with the children I found that despite the challenges their community posed, the Club offered them a place in which they could explore their interests and be exposed to other opportunities in life. I learned the importance of community programs truly being based in the community. Even though the Boys and Girls Club is a national organization, it was fully staffed and run by Helena/West Helena natives who understood the specific needs of their close knit community. A substantial amount of my time was spent getting to know the children and building trusting relationships with them before I began any programs.
The lessons from my internship fostered my undergraduate educational experiences. As a psychology major, I took courses that explored the effects of poverty on children and on child development. This was illuminating; children in impoverished communities faced a multitude of institutional disadvantages in addition to disparaging societal biases, which made overcoming their situations even more challenging. For my poverty capstone, I researched how the educational practice of tracking and de-tracking in public school further widened achievement gaps against minority, low social-economic-status students. A recurring theme in my research was that lower income students faced significant negative social perceptions and discriminatory treatment. This not only afforded them fewer opportunities for advancement, but also had detrimental psychological effects that hindered their ability to perform.
Having social interactions and developing a working rapport with the people I serve has been a vital first step in all my positions. My senior year of college, I applied and was selected for the Elrod Fellowship- a program designed to encourage careers in nonprofits. Through the Fellowship I worked at a mental health nonprofit based in Washington, DC, that serves the chronically homeless, mentally ill adult population through a housing first-model. At the time my interests were primarily in clinical psychology, so my position gave me invaluable insight into various mental illnesses in concurrence with the challenges of poverty. I also gained insight into the convoluted systems that many people have to navigate in the attempts to receive services from community programs. I became interested in organizational systems and processes, how nonprofits and businesses can be better at providing their services. This led to my current studies, masters in industrial organizational psychology, and current work with the Department of Health and Human Services; Housing Stabilization Department. Without the experiences I had in my Shepherd internship and involvement in the Poverty program, I wouldn’t have been exposed the wide-scope of careers in nonprofits or non-profit minded work. I will carry the lessons I learned, as I begin my new career in the business psychology field.