Location: Memphis, Tennessee
One of the things that most appealed to Eliza about Rhodes College, where she just completed her sophomore year, was its commitment to service. Lots of schools talk the talk, but it was clear on the first day of orientation -when Eliza and her fellow freshmen were sent out into the Memphis community to work in some of the thousands of nonprofits that Memphis boasts – that Rhodes walks the walk. Eliza knew she had made the right choice.
That was confirmed this past summer, when she was awarded one of the coveted Rhodes Summer Fellowships to work at Girls, Inc. Eliza first had to line up the summer internship opportunity, one that appealed to her because of its emphasis on breaking the cycle of poverty for Memphis girls by providing enrichment opportunities and mentoring relationships. She then applied to Rhodes for one of the fifteen fellowship spots, when she was asked how the Girls, Inc. internship play a role in what we she is studying at Rhodes. Eliza’s response was that, as a theatre major, she hoped to continue to use theatre as a way to express herself and she wanted to introduce art (theatre, journaling, and coloring) to the five to sixteen-year old girls at Girls, Inc. as a healthy way of expressing themselves.
We were thrilled when Eliza learned she had been awarded the fellowship. It allowed her to do meaningful work (good for her) while also covering her housing and paying her a generous stipend (good for us). Plus it left the month of August free for Eliza to pursue her own artistic expression (in the form of a 2-week acting intensive in New York City). What we did not know, and what came as such a welcome and pleasant surprise, is how much more the fellowship entailed and how much Eliza grew and learned as a result of the additional enrichment it provided her.
Every Tuesday, all of the fellows left their respective internships (that ranged from pro bono work at the Memphis Legal Services to volunteering at an AIDS clinic daycare to working at the Black Business Association) to meet on campus for field trips and learning opportunities.
“The goal,” says Eliza, “was to show us how different themes we learn about in school impact our city and are worked on by nonprofits.”
They visited the Memphis slavery museum and read articles about how the city’s history is intertwined with its current challenges. One week they were given three dollars in quarters and had to get to five different destinations around the city using public transport. “For us, it was a fun expedition using a map,” Eliza says, “but we realized that if we were going to work, or carrying a child or groceries, it would be really challenging.” Another week the fellows learned about sustainability and city parks. They were broken into groups of three and given $20 each to go to the local farmers market and challenged with making an appetizer using only one kitchen appliance and ingredients purchased at the market. “It was so impactful to talk to the people who grew the food and be able to support them,” Eliza says of the experience. It was also fun cooking with the fellows and sharing the intensity of her summer experience with them, many of whom she would not have met but for the fellowship. They also focused on health during one of their nine weeks together, touring St. Jude’s Hospital and Church Health (a nonprofit that provides lower priced health services to people in the Memphis community) to learn how poverty impacts healthcare and to reinforce the larger theme of how poverty is at the heart of so many of the societal problems Memphis needs to address.
On their final day together, each fellow did a 25-minute presentation on their respective nonprofits, what they had learned and how their experience impacted their career aspirations. Eliza talked about how much her time at Girls, Inc made her appreciate how many advantages she has in life, especially her stable and supportive family. (Yay for that takeaway!) She also discussed how much she appreciated the Girls, Inc approach of focusing on life skills and options to empower the girls to make good decisions moving forward rather than just telling them what to do. As other fellows shared their own highlights and takeaways, Eliza found herself marveling at how many innovative solutions and successful nonprofits had started with one or two people having a good idea and making it happen.
“It made me realize that I have power to do something impactful in my community,” Eliza says. “I don’t know what yet, but I now know that passion to make the world a better place takes you pretty far.”
Any program that reinforces that lesson – and leaves my child feeling grateful for her family – gets a gold star from me. I am so grateful that Eliza had this experience on so many levels, and I know that her summer fellowship will continue to pay dividends to both Eliza and the girls with whom she worked for years to come.
Eliza’s video about her Girls, Inc. experience: