Participating in Vassar’s ongoing projects in Haiti has been a big part of Tamsin Chen’s life since she first arrived on campus three years ago. She has visited the school and medical clinic Vassar supports there on two occasions and helps organize fundraisers and other events for the Vassar Haiti Project. So when she learned she had been awarded a stipend from the Tananbaum Family Leadership Program for Work and Development for the internship of her choice this summer, Chen naturally decided to return to Haiti.
“I was captivated by the energy of the Haiti Project volunteers before I even took my first class here, and I’m excited I’ll be going back this summer,” she says.
Chen ’15, an international studies and economics major, will be working for the iF Foundation, a not-for-profit agency that works with farmers in rural Haiti. She will design and distribute a survey seeking information from about 4,000 farm families on topics such as income, health care and education. Chen will then analyze the data to help iF caseworkers and administrators assess current programs and protocols and determine the best ways to support the farm families in their expansion of economic opportunities.
“The World Bank and other organizations take these surveys from time to time, but mine will include more open-ended questions,” she says. “Often, it’s the personal narratives that provide the most vital information.”
Chen, who was living in Singapore and Australia before she enrolled at Vassar, says she learned about the college’s ongoing ties to Haiti more or less by accident. As an international student, one of the first people she met when she arrived at Vassar was Andrew Meade, assistant dean for campus life and director of international services.
“During orientation, Andrew asked me if I wanted to go to a ‘stretching party,’” Chen recalls. “I had no idea what it was – I thought it might be a yoga class or something.” When she arrived, she discovered the party was dedicated to stretching the canvas of Haitian artwork onto frames so the art could be sold to raise funds for the Vassar Haiti Project’s initiatives in Haiti.
“I was absolutely drawn in to the Haiti Project from that first moment,” she says.
Chen returns to rural Haiti this year after spending last summer back home in Singapore working on an urban environmental project called Operation Zero Waste Dabao. The organization encouraged customers and business owners in the food service industry in downtown Singapore to use biodegradable trash bags and food containers and to take other steps to make their establishments more eco-friendly.
Chen is one of 21 Vassar juniors awarded Tananbaum fellowships this year. In addition to providing stipends for the summer internships, the fellowship includes career coaching and mentoring through the college Career Development Office. She says that counseling is enabling her to make informed decisions about future. “My career coach, Jannette Swanson, has given me some real skills – how to make social media connections, how to write good cover letters and thank-you letters. She is helping me frame all the right questions.”
She says her hands-on work in Haiti has also helped her envision some possible post-Vassar career paths. “I plan to work for a government agency or a non-government organization before I go to graduate school,” Chen says. “The things I learned in Haiti have really enriched my international studies classes, and more experience in the field will help me when I get to grad school.”