The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Fellowships Provide Career Advantages for SSA Students Working in government agencies and nonprofits provides important experience

In keeping with a rich tradition, SSA students continue to receive remarkable recognition for their talent in the awarding of prestigious fellowships from outside the University. These fellowships, and others made possible by SSA supporters, provide useful and varied experiences for SSA students and recent graduates by providing them the opportunity to work in government agencies that help people in need and serving in nonprofits that assist the disadvantaged.

SSA students receive prestigious fellowships each year to work in a wide range of government and nonprofit internships. This is a look at the experiences of a recent SSA graduate and two current students: Ellie Hart, AM ’14, is working as a Presidential Management Fellow for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Chicago; second-year student Lucia Ramirez-Bolivar served as a Human Rights Fellow during the summer of 2014 through the University of Chicago’s Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, at a legal non-profit organization called American Gateways; and second-year student Leah Eggers spent last summer as an SSA Social Innovation Fellow at the Cara Program in Chicago, a nonprofit job readiness program for individuals who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

By Ed Finkel

Each year, 20 or so students and recent graduates receive fellowships that range from federal, state, and city government opportunities to those based at nonprofits and university campuses, says Michael Jogerst, director of career services. Those who participate gain extra training, supervision and skills that boost their career preparation.

“Many of these involve taking an interdisciplinary lens to a particular problem,” he says. For example, the Summer Service Partnership Program in the University's Department of Family Medicine and the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship program offer opportunities in the healthcare field. The recipients "get to see how other disciplines might understand and address a problem,” he explains. The recipients bring a social work perspective to an interdisciplinary setting.

“These fellowships complement the rich interdisciplinary curriculum and field work that we offer here at SSA. Our students do a remarkable job of securing prestigious fellowships that both recognize their talents and advance their professional social work careers,” says Dean and Mose and Sylvia Firestone Professor Neil Guterman.

SSA students have done very well over the years in gaining fellowships, says Celia Bergman, dean of students. “Michael does a great job bringing previous fellowship recipients to SSA to talk about their experience and encouraging current students to apply.”

The fellowships tend to impress potential employers because they involve a competitive winnowing process, Jogerst says. “Employers are going to see they’ve already been vetted, that some committee or panel of experts who have been doing this for years has chosen these students,” he says. “That telegraphs immediately to an employer that they have gone through a competition, and based on their skills and knowledge, they’re the ones who have been selected.”

Fellowship supervisors become important mentors for students and recent alumni. They provide a source of support as references—and, potentially, become future employers for the fellowship recipients, Bergman says. “The networking can have a long-term payoff,” she says. “And some of [the fellowships] do come with monetary awards, many of them, and that’s very, very helpful for our students, who tend to be looking for other sources of financial support.” Not all fellowships provide such awards, however, and in some cases they are only partial stipends that cover travel, for example.

Among the more prestigious are the Presidential Management Fellowship, the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, Education Pioneers, Davis Projects for Peace, Pritzker Summer Service Partnership, and the VA Center of Excellence in Substance Abuse Treatment and Education Fellowship in Puget Sound, Washington. Here is a look at three fellowship recipients.Female-presenting, light-skinned Ellie Hart standing in front of the American flag

Ellie Hart, AM ’14, is working as a Presidential Management Fellow for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Chicago, rotating among various offices within the department during the two-year experience to gain a breadth of knowledge, skills and experience. She has been working on projects that have included helping to review grants for a rental assistance program for people with disabilities. She is rotating into various other offices to prepare for work within the Office of Multifamily Housing, Asset Management division, which helps preserve affordable housing in communities.

Prior to enrolling at SSA, Hart spent a year working through AmeriCorps for a nonprofit organization in Chicago’s western suburbs placing homeless people in temporary housing. She then worked full-time for three and a half years at Inspiration Corporation in Chicago, which provides job and life skills training for difficult to employ people. While there, she attended SSA part-time. Hart did field placements during her SSA years at the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, and a startup nonprofit called Ingenuity, which worked within Chicago Public Schools to promote arts education.

The application process to become a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF) started with an online application that included a behavioral test “analyzing how you would fit into the government structure,” Hart says. Next, she traveled to Washington for a personal interview as well as a group interview with other candidates, which “was more of a hands-on experience—we actually had to implement, or problem-solve, an issue within the government,” she says.

Hart applied for the PMF program because of its reputation for leadership development and helping people understand the structure of the federal government. The program provides a manager-level supervisor as a mentor, promises 160 hours of formal training opportunities, and “focuses on professional development, both soft skills and hard skills,” she says. People who complete the program also become potential candidates for job openings in the agencies where they were fellows.

Over the summer and fall, Hart worked in HUD ’s multifamily housing area as part of a special project. She was a grant reviewer for a relatively new rental assistance program that administers funding to be disbursed to state housing agencies that fund efforts to move individuals with disabilities into community settings.

“The idea is that people with disabilities who need to live in the community should do so, and supportive services should be provided for them through Medicaid,” Hart says. A team of three people served on each grant review panel, including a HUD employee and another from the Department of Health and Human Services, for a program that will distribute $150 million in grants over three years.

HUD ’s research and evaluation office analyzes whether the department is correct in its belief that community-based living will cost less for these individuals with disabilities, Hart says. “It’s transformative for me to come from a nonprofit with a budget of $5 million, to a program that’s giving away $2 million to $11 million in each state,” she says. It’s also been instructive, “in terms of the structure of the government, to see how data and evaluation comes into play in a program like this.”

Hart also served for a rotation of five months to be exposed to different offices and learning various managerial skills. This was a developmental rotation required to complete the PMF program. She helped in HUD's hiring for the Multifamily Midwest Regional office that includes Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis. She assisted in the recruiting and coordinated the logistics of interviews for candidates for 80 positions while coordinating orientation for the new staff. “I’m leading a hospitality team, which is helping to integrate the new staff within each office in our region,” she says. “We pair them up with a ‘buddy,’ an existing staff person, to answer questions from the incoming staffer and provide them with a more hospitable atmosphere.” This includes “simple things like how their desk is set up, their computer and supplies, little things like that, working with different offices across HUD .”

Second-year student Female-presenting, tan-skinned Lucia Ramirez-Bolivar stands in front of a sign that says American GatewaysLucia Ramirez-Bolivar served as a Human Rights Fellow during the summer of 2014 through the University of Chicago’s Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, at a legal nonprofit organization called American Gateways, where she assisted low-income undocumented immigrants, mostly from Central America, in navigating the documentation required to gain legal entry into the U.S.

A native of Colombia, where she completed a law degree, Ramirez-Bolivar gained experience before enrolling at SSA by supporting internally displaced populations while working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Her first-year field placement at SSA was at the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School. At the clinic, a team of lawyers and social workers represent youth involved in the criminal justice system. During the current academic year, she is working within the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, an organization that promotes the best interests of unaccompanied immigrant children, advocating for them in immigration system.

Ramirez-Bolivar was a fellowship recipient with American Gateways in the summer of 2014. The application process for the Human Rights fellowship began with an essay about where a student wants to work and on what type of project. “I decided to apply because I have always been interested in human rights issues,” she says. “I am interested in immigration issues in general, and I proposed to work with American Gateways because their mission is to provide legal orientation and representation to low-income immigrants through different programs. I was particularly interested in participating in the Asylum and Detention Assistance Program as well as the program Representing Immigrant Survivors of Abuse.”

As part of the fellowship, Ramirez-Bolivar made regular trips to two nearby detention centers, one for men and one for women. The people placed in those detention centers were mostly from Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras, who have been apprehended by immigration authorities. She and her colleagues provided presentations and workshops on the various legal avenues their clients could take. She helped translate documents, interviewed the clients, researched their countries’ conditions to support asylum applications, and helped them write required affidavits.

“It was an interesting experience because I was able to learn more about immigration law and the context of immigration here in the U.S., and what are the needs of this population,” Ramirez-Bolivar says. “It gave me the opportunity to see first-hand how the immigration system is working, and it changed my perspective about it. In the long-term, it encouraged me to continue being involved in these issues.”

Ramirez-Bolivar built trust with individual clients through a series of meetings during which she researched clients’ stories and helped write the affidavits. The process also gave her experience working with professionals in other disciplines, such as law, and to work with people from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, personalities and perspectives, Ramirez-Bolivar says.

The experience also prompted Ramirez-Bolivar to consider her clients’ challenges vis-à-vis her own, very different migrant experience; where her clients are fleeing troubles in their home countries, and facing struggles along the journey to resettlement, she was welcomed as a graduate student who came to the U.S. for an opportunity. “It made me think about my own privilege and how it’s important for me to continue working in these issues so they can have a better quality of life and hope for their future,” she says.

Edna Yang, general counsel for American Gateways, says the organization typically brings in law students as interns but was impressed with Ramirez-Bolivar’s passion for working with immigrants, her law degree from Colombia, and years of work as a human rights lawyer there.

“It was helpful for our clients to have someone [with a social work background] talking to them about other issues that are not solely legal issues,” she says. “Their fears about talking to a judge, or what the next steps in a case are—it was nice to able to assign that to someone like Lucia, who could address these client concerns with compassion and understanding. She addressed how a legal case could impact a client’s life overall, and not solely from a legal perspective. Lucia also knows how to bridge the gap between research, and how research impacts individuals and their lives. That was evident in seeing the work she did with clients. She was a real asset to us.”

Second-year student Leah Eggers spent last summer as an SSA Social Diverse group of individuals sitting togetherInnovation Fellow at the Cara Program in Chicago, a nonprofit job readiness program for individuals who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. She helped program leaders think through whether and how to build a network among those who have completed the program, whom the Cara Program refers to as “alumni.”

Eggers worked in AmeriCorps as an undergraduate as a volunteer for an organization called Youthworks that serves at-risk, runaway and homeless youth. For two and a half years after graduation, she worked in the Peace Corps in the Philippines for a nonprofit called Euphrasia Development Center, that was focused on helping youth involved in gang activity. Her field placements at SSA have both been at youth and workforce development-oriented organizations in Chicago: Inspiration Corporation during her first year, and Youth Guidance during the current school year.

She was a Social Innovation Summer Fellow during the summer of 2014 and was impressed by the work of the Cara Program. “They had impressive results, in terms of job placement and retention for the people they serve,” she says. The fellowship “was a great chance to push myself to explore a new organization and also try out a new skill set.”

Although Eggers had worked for organizations similar to Cara previously, the project they had in mind, completing a feasibility study for the development of a potential networking organization for program “alumni,” took her in new directions. To carry out the project, she interviewed alumni, staff, and current students of the program and synthesized their responses into a report to the organization.

“I had the freedom to look critically at an organization and assess whether or not they should have an alumni organization. They were leaning toward starting one but weren’t sure how to get one off the ground,” she says.

Leah EggersThe experience gave Eggers organization-wide program development knowledge and skills as she spoke with the information technology department, development department, program staff in different sites and alumni from various years. “It helped me look more deeply into an organization and find out how resources from different departments can be utilized in developing an initiative,” she says. “This process helped me develop skills in relationship building and created buy-in across the organization. Those strategies will definitely carry with me.”

Her research found that while the Cara Program develops strong bonds during the period of time when students are involved, people who complete the program feel removed from that community after they leave and have to navigate life challenges on their own. Alumni told her that while they could rely on their friends and family for general emotional support, “a person who’s been through Cara understands my journey in a way a friend or family member can’t understand,” Eggers says. “That was the value of an alumni association, in addition to the career development and mentoring opportunities.”

The goal of the feasibility study was to assess the social, emotional, and career needs of alumni and how they could be addressed by building an alumni association, which could potentially include “social networks, a supportive community for dealing with various life challenges, and helping alumni advancing in their careers,” whether returning to school or finding a job, Eggers says. “On the other side, the study assessed the capacity of Cara to start the program and its readiness for growth. I explored if and how existing staff, structures, and organizational resources were able to support the start-up and ongoing support of the alumni association.”

From Cara’s perspective, the organization simply hadn’t had the staff time to complete the feasibility study, says Rita Balzotti, career advancement manager. “We got a validation that this was a good idea, rather than just being an idea,” she says. “We got some stats to back it up and some additional information. We have started to put into effect some of the preliminary steps she outlined,” such as electing officers for the alumni organization. “We gave her the general criteria, and she just kind of ran with it, integrated herself within the organization, got to know the students, and got to know how we worked very quickly.”

Like other fellowship recipients, Eggers was able to make a substantial contribution to the work of an organization helping the disadvantaged while learning important skills herself. Their experiences as fellowship recipients have become important components of their preparation for careers in helping people in need, either in a nonprofit or governmental setting.