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FAO Schwarz Fellowship Announces Increase in Fellowship Salaries for 2023-2025 Cohort

BOSTON — July 19, 2022 The FAO Schwarz Fellowship has announced an increase in salaries for Fellows starting with the 2023-2025 cohort. 

When they start next summer, new Fellows will receive a salary of $40,000 in their first year,  which includes a $2,000 start-of-Fellowship bonus. In their second year, they will earn $45,000, which includes a $3,000 end-of-Fellowship bonus. In addition, 100 percent of the cost of health insurance premium coverage will be paid for both years (with an approximate value of $12,000/year), and Fellows will receive a monthly subway pass (with an approximate value of  $1,200/year)—for a total value of approximately $111,400 in compensation over the course of the two-year program.

The Fellowship will continue to monitor salaries in the cities where we offer Fellowships and ensure that Fellows receive a living wage along with the professional development, mentoring and experiences they need for a career in social impact.

Salaries are paid by the host organizations with funding support from the FAO Schwarz Family Foundation.

“The FAO Schwarz Fellowship program offers Fellow salaries that are very competitive with salaries and benefits offered by other selective Fellowships,” said Priscilla Cohen, Executive Director, of the FAO Schwarz Fellowship program. “Add in the professional development that the Fellowship includes, and it’s clear that it is a valuable program for young people seeking careers leading social change.” Completing the two-year program can also “help young people advance more quickly to management positions leading social change.”

“We’re grateful that we can support this increase in partnership with our nonprofit host organizations,”  added Cohen. “The Fellowship will continue to monitor salaries and the cost of living in each of the cities where we offer Fellowships and ensure that Fellows receive a living wage along with the training needed to jump-start a career in social impact.”

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You and Me and Data

“They’re always surprised when I say this,” the panelist says. It’s the Head of User Research at a certain company. He’s poised confidently in his tall, white bar stool, gripping the microphone. “But here’s something I always tell the people I’m supervising: only 30 to 50 percent of a research job is being a researcher.” The other panelists listen intently, pivoting their heads towards him. “The other 50 to 70 percent are your soft skills: working cross-functionally, and storytelling with data.” Thoughts and murmurs reverberate across the crowd. He gauges the audience’s reaction. “That sort of thing.” 

Meanwhile, my hands fly percussively across the keyboard of my work laptop—I’ve been taking notes the entire presentation. It’s not really common to see a researcher representing their company at a panel, much less a researcher active at the intersection of technology and social impact. Yet here he is: another queer man of color who had connected the dots between his own fancy-schmancy New England education and the impact he could make in Applied Research. Of course, it isn’t statistically insignificant that he has around a decade of experience over my measly full-time months. He’s the only reason I bothered coming to a panel that, for the most part, mostly had targeted client-facing B2B professionals.  He can probably hear the clacking. I hope he understands—it’s not all that different from qualitative research, right? 

For all the research I had executed and wanted to execute, for all the rigor I had taken into Year Up and learned within it, for all the data carved into the shape of 70 colorful, animated slides and graphs: am I truly embodying a researcher?

Keyboard clacking or not, the researcher continues his thought. “It’s a human-centered practice,” he concludes. He’s referring to both research participants and coworkers. A practice that’s 30 to 50 percent research, 50 to 70 percent stakeholder management. There’s a pause. 

Another panelist flicks the switch of his own microphone. Conversation then drifts back to the Director of Sales at a Series A startup, and we start talking about product management again. 

The idea of those human-centered proportions thus haunts me for several hours. 

I don’t believe that the researcher had been wrong: even as an early career researcher and analyst, the words still ring true. Since the start of my fellowship at Year Up, I have been plunging headlong into data and its repercussions. Most of my first month of the fellowship—besides the inherently hectic nature of onboarding anywhere—had been occupied by meticulous survey design, study rollout, mixed methods analysis, workshop agenda-building, and the construction of a corresponding 80-odd slide deck. In fact, the researcher’s words align with what had been my approach at Year Up beforehand: gather your data into a nice, lean repository and do the work of extracting narrative for the data’s eventual audience. Easier said than done, and a process that stops getting faster after a certain point of skill. Doable. 

Yet that researcher ratio strikes me at a very specific time. Less than 12 hours after this in-person, after-work, Wednesday night panel comes a very special Thursday morning: I am going to be facilitating another LC Lookback, the second of four.  

I’ve been working towards this data democratization workshop since as early as October, starting with a lengthy research proposal centered on the use of semi-structured interviewing as part of market-level research. Even with semi-structured interviewing pushed to next cycle, I’ve been grinding away at participant surveys—whether attempting to eliminate all chance for respondent bias, or simply just making sure trainees respond at all. Surveys turn into results, results turn into spreadsheets, and spreadsheets turn into waves of PivotTables and flashy visualizations. With any luck, presentations transform into change– whether incremental or sweeping– that delivers a better experience for the program’s end users. It’s a continuous, delicate art of observation, adjustment, and implementation.

Even beyond the data of this study, I’ve dived into the rigor of research: I voraciously consume articles penned by researchers and rapidly absorb the language particular to different industries and facets of the craft. I consult mentors in the field and establish a laundry list of professional development opportunities for myself throughout the remainder of the fellowship. I decide that I want to embody the strengths of both qualitative and quantitative methods—and, in the process, earn a certification in User Research and Design from the University of Michigan. I interrogate my own qualitative skills, and obliterate any vaguely leading questions from my interview scripts. I pin Survey Design down to its academic science, grinding each and every distracting element away from my surveys. I grind away at quant: I master SQL, and build myself up to an intermediate degree of Python for Data Analysis. I convince IT to let me install RStudio, and I almost get them to install a Python IDE.  Request denied—security reasons, they say.  

Still, for a while, data becomes me. Rigor becomes me. Embodying the researcher becomes me. I learn what the hottest discourse among corporate researchers is this season: proving your value add. 

And a few days before that Thursday, at the suggestion of a mentor, I drop a slide from my lengthy, lengthy workshop deck into a channel accessible to my stakeholders. That’s the nature of research, right? You grow stakeholder buy-in through drops of insights. It’s a good, basic metric: it’s a Net Promoter Score, a measurement cooked up at Bain & Co for the sake of comparing quantified, popular opinion between industries and companies. It’s not very common in non-profits, but we use it at Year Up. I upload my visualization to Slack, and respond accordingly when someone asks for a bit of context. It’s industry standard—and moreover, one of our standards at Year Up: I think there’s no harm done. 

The day after—but still before that Thursday, and before that Wednesday night—the Director of Program combs over my slides over a video call, and he finds himself a bit frazzled by the length. He’s especially concerned about the technical language I’ve deployed across my presentation. I’ve put in a slide explaining the history, purpose, and conventions of Lickert scales, those 1 to 5 or 1 to 7 or 0 to 10 things. I’ve put in a slide explaining response bias, and the ways in which a respondent’s context may affect their answers. There’s three, hefty slides discussing the roles of Qualitative Research, Quantitative Research, and Desk Research before any bulk of the data rears its head. “That’s the first time I’ve heard ‘desk research’ used that way,” he tells me. Then, he continues, “I think we need to make some cuts here.” 

I pause. I’ve been grinding away at these surveys, these spreadsheets, these hulking affinity diagrams of open-ended qualitative responses—to me, this is already a dilution. I think about the rigor I had so deeply immersed myself in. I think about the ways I had held myself back from including documentation of statistical significance. I think about my research, the ways I want it to grow, and how I want to grow. I wonder how, in that moment, to advocate for that growth. I wonder how to prove my value add.

I wonder how to prove my value add to myself. 

“You’ve only got 60 minutes for this, and it’s going to be a long, long day on Thursday,” the Director tells me. “I think—well, you have to consider your audience.” I see his eyes, even over Zoom, scanning across the numbers and texts and graphics. He asks, “Is everyone going to be able to understand this?” I consider his question, and hover my mouse over the delete button. “Wait,” he continues, “I think nerds like you and me can talk about this forever when we have the time.” I hover off the delete button. 

“Hide these slides—you or I or someone else can find them very, very helpful later,” he muses. I follow his instructions. That’s 3 fewer slides to sift through. “Try compressing them into one: what’s the main thought you’re communicating here? That a lot of work went into this, right?” Typing away again, I reply, “Yeah, that’s right.” The Director confirms my line of thinking, “Great. You have to make sure you’re telling a story with what you’re showing us. What’s the story we’re painting with the data?” 

We trim a slide or two off the deck, and compress and clarify where necessary. The deck actually doesn’t change very much—he muses about whether an hour will be enough time for all of the content, and I try to respond with confidence. “Hey, by the way: Great work, Avery,” he tells me, “You’ve been working hard on this.” I smile a bit and nod. He’s right, after all.

Come Thursday morning, and I’m reflecting while setting up the presentation space. I’m not so much nervous as I am jittery, and I suppose that the coffee hadn’t helped. Yet I’m still asking myself questions.

For all the research I had executed and wanted to execute, for all the rigor I had taken into Year Up and learned within it, for all the data carved into the shape of 70 colorful, animated slides and graphs: am I truly embodying a researcher? In my pursuit of not only scientific precision in my analysis, but scientific exactness in my reporting: am I managing my stakeholders’ expectations and understanding, or am I arrogantly positioning myself as a sole source of knowledge? And for the participants, the stakeholders for whom the data would matter most—yet wouldn’t be in the room of this day-long workshop—is this report going to be to their benefit? Am I making sure not to reduce them to a set of data points? 

Where am I on that scale of 30 to 50 percent against 50 to 70 percent? 

Interactives and warm-up activities come and go. My presentation—in all of its data-laden glory—comes and goes. I try not to pontificate; instead, I carve out a story through a reservoir of statistics and words, all stemming from the participants we had worked with for months upon months upon months. If I keep anything to an exact science, it’s my timekeeping: questions have their dedicated sections, and interruptions are not allowed. It’s appreciated by my colleagues. Someone compliments my sweater; it was going to be a long day, so our Site Director thought it best for us all to wear casual.

At the end of the workshop, we hold a “Plus/Delta,” an exercise to identify the strengths and growth areas of an event. One of my coworkers comes up to a whiteboard in front of the room, pops the cap off of her marker, and gestures toward the dozens of people seated. 

“Well,” she tells them, “I have a Plus to start off with.” My head pivots towards her. 

“Avery,” she continues, “Fantastic data. I learned a lot today.” She writes Avery’s Data in fat, bold letters at the top of the board, right under a plus-sign. “Check,” someone calls out, signaling agreement. “Check,” goes another voice. “Check.” Another. “Check.” Another. “Check.” Again. “Check.” It goes on like this for a little while, until there’s a stream of little checkmarks following my name. “Clarity of the data,” someone else calls out. “Check to that too,” says another. I try not to laugh. 

“Glad to hear that,” I joke. And there I am, an early career researcher and analyst. 

Even by the end of our Plus/Delta— even by the end of a day spanning all the way from 9 AM to 6 PM— I don’t know where I lie on that scale of 30 to 50, 50 to 70. I still haven’t put the puzzle pieces of my own research entirely together with that of Year Up’s national research functions. Unfortunately, I’m still 78% of the way off from completing my certification in Data Science in Python, but NumPy hasn’t been too hard to figure that out. I’ve been given the possibility of starting some semi-structured interviewing, but even that hasn’t been set in stone.

Yet, through all of that, I know I’m a researcher with a clear value add. And I don’t think I have to perform too many tests to prove that. The data against the null hypothesis is self-evident, even to me. 

Picture of Avery Trinidad

Avery Trinidad

Avery Trinidad (he/him) is the Research & Insights FAO Schwarz Fellow at Year Up in New York City.

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Q&A with Fellowship Alums

Each year, as a part of our newsletter, we ask alums to reflect on a series of questions about the Fellowship and social impact. Check out their responses below, and be sure to continue on to read the full newsletter!

What advice would you give current or soon-to-be alumni Fellows as they're beginning their careers?

Clara Monk ‘22: Ask people you look up to at your org to have coffee with you! While they might not initiate and ask you, in my experience they are always happy to be asked and willing to chat. It’s been a great way for me to build relationships and get career advice!

Molly Blake ‘19: There is no time like the present to try everything. I just switched careers and it is still so exciting and thrilling every single day. Don’t be afraid to shadow people, ask for help, network, and try everything. It is never too late. 

H’Abigail Mlo ‘22: Find joy, rest, and community outside of work. 

Jen Benson ‘17: Over the last two years you’ve set strong foundations to continue to grow your careers. Lean on your experiences, cohort, network, and learnings from the Fellowship, and don’t be afraid to reach for the positions, organizations, and work of your dreams. 

Sara Wilson ‘13: Be kind to yourself, and reflect on your professional goals and aspirations. 

Samantha Perlman ‘19: Be open to new opportunities, be willing to take risks and follow your interests and passion. Your career is just beginning and the FAO community is here to support you as you flourish.

Bianca van Heydoorn ‘09: Experiment early and often in your career. Be willing to make mistakes so that you stay in the practice of innovating and out of what can become a familiar rut. 

Joyce Kim ‘20: Seek out opportunities to try new tasks or roles even if it’s not something that’s officially a part of your job description so that you can have a better understanding of what you enjoy in your work!

Michael McNeill-Martinez ‘14: Be available, open-minded, and build a network of people whose perspectives you appreciate

Lauren Brincat ‘12: Maintain and grow your professional connections and never underestimate the power of a written thank you.

Khari Graves ‘17: Don’t be afraid to call on and leverage the network you have built both through the Fellowship and your organization. Even if it is an alum you have never met before, they are almost always more than willing to help you in any way they can.

Allie Negron ‘18: Don’t be afraid to ask questions, stay curious, and make suggestions! I was promoted within my current organization out of a need to formalize and professionalize the management of the Agency’s project pipeline. While I didn’t necessarily have a ton of project management experience, I had ideas for how we could improve the current process and be clearer and more transparent in our communication. If a responsibility or role you want doesn’t already exist, see how you might be able to carve your own path!

Meredith Jones ‘21: When I think back to my first few years after graduating college, the one thing I wish I’d done differently was to be more patient. It’s a weird time and it’s ok to just let it be weird! Things will change, and while it’s important to plan, you really never know what might come your way. 

Barbyose Noisette ‘09: Become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Sometimes embracing discomfort is a catalyst for significant growth.

Joanna Steinberg ‘08: Let your direct service and special project work inform the other! The fellowship provides an amazing opportunity to develop skills and experience in both of these areas.

Abi Mlo ‘22: Since joining TPL, I have learned and grown immensely. Prior to the fellowship, I’d never worked in this field. Now, I can’t imagine not working towards environmental justice in some capacity. Before completing the fellowship, TPL offered me to stay on and I’m thankful I did. I have led new projects and programs, built new partnerships, and strengthened existing ones. 

Karen Wilber ‘18: One thing that the fellowship helped me do is always think about what I wanted to learn next and how my skills could help my organization grow. This mindset has helped me to continue expanding my skillset in a way that has led to career growth as I’ve stayed at my host organization now for more than 5 years after my fellowship concluded!

Serena Salgado ‘22: Working for a non-profit before becoming a social impact consultant gave me so much context for the work I’m doing now and made me realize that I wanted to remain in the social impact space for my career!

Ellie Sanchez ‘17: I never expected to step into a career in politics/government, but my experience with the fellowship definitely helped me grow and showcase leadership and project management skills that made the transition into this world seamless. I hope that my experience can show current and future fellows that the opportunities after the fellowship are endless, and you can leverage the skills you learn here in a multitude of ways.

Khari Graves ‘17: The fellowship influenced my career path by showing me that the theories and ideas that I studied in school could be applied in a vast number of ways to support my community in their everyday life and material reality. It gave me a chance to grow existing skills and learn new ones in a setting that was incredibly supportive. To this day, I am still supported in my professional and community work by colleagues from my FAO placement. 

Kayla Jones ‘19: The fellowship connected me to other like-minded social impact leaders and accelerated my career growth. It felt great to gain such extensive community engagement and advocacy experience as part of my first job out of college. I went to graduate school after finishing the fellowship and decided to stay within the social impact sector because of my experience at Jumpstart. I look back at my time in the fellowship with fondness because I got the unique opportunity to help so many children and families throughout NYC.

Sara Wilson ‘13: Book banning, reproductive rights, and climate change are important social challenges to solve since they have much larger impacts on society. 

Nicholas Mitch ‘20: I believe it’s always important to take a systems approach to considering the context and effect of our work. To create equitable change, we need to understand the forces that shape the physical, economic, and social environments of which we’re part. 

Sarah Kacevich ‘16: Humans’ relationships with the environment currently need a lot of healing. When we investigate the deep interconnections between racism, slavery, capitalism, and environmental exploitation, it becomes clear that we must work together to envision a future that centers a more just and reciprocal relationship between humans and the Earth.

Ryan Corrigan ‘25: The most important thing to address is economic inequality. It bleeds through everything from access to education, the ability to pressure the government to make positive change, the ability to live a safe and secure life, and it maintains the power structures that reinforce climate change and racial inequity. 

Michael McNeill-Martinez ‘14: Both validating and appreciating identity, and what that means for people from all walks of life. 

Jahmali Matthews ‘23: I am committed to solving social challenges revolving around addressing the root causes of classroom inequality and dismantling systemic barriers that hinder the educational and societal progress of working-class individuals. By advocating for equitable access to education, resources, and opportunities, I believe we can contribute to a more just and inclusive society where everyone has the chance to fulfill their potential.

Sara Wilson ‘13: Frontiers in Social Innovation: The Essential Handbook for Creating, Deploying, and Sustaining Creative Solutions to Systemic Problems – was an interesting read. 

Mariah Peebles ‘11: I highly recommend Matthew Desmond’s new book Poverty, By America–there is a great episode of the podcast Vibe Check where they interview Desmond and discuss the main themes of his latest book. It is so good! 

Michael McNeill-Martinez ‘14: “Becoming a Totally Inclusive School” by Angeline Aow, Sadie Hollins and Stephen Whitehead 

Adriana Moran Garcia ‘22: Currently reading the 100 Year War on Palestine 

Jesse McLaughlin ‘24: The most interesting book related to social impact and my work in the environmental field that I’ve read recently is Decolonizing Extinction by Juno Salazar Parreñas. This book traces the ways in which colonialism, decolonization, and indigeneity shape more-than-human relations at orangutan rehabilitation centers on Borneo. Parreñas asks, “could conservation biology turn away from ultimately violent investments in population growth and embrace a feminist sense of welfare, even if it means experiencing loss and pain.”

Kira Azulay ‘23: The most interesting book I have read recently is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. As the Museum of Science focuses on climate change, it was helpful to me to learn about different ways of interacting with and understanding nature and the place of humans within the natural world. 

Sarika Tatineni Doppalapudi ‘25: One of my favorite books I’ve ever read is “In Search of Our Mothers Gardens: Womanist Prose” by Alice Walker. I first read this book seven years ago, and it has come to shape much of my work. “In Search of Our Mothers Gardens” is a collection of essays, reviews, and speeches, and there are two essays I revisit frequently. Alice Walker’s writings in “In Search of Our Mothers Gardens” and “Looking for Zora” challenge our notions of what archives can, and should, look like, and the importance of finding holistic ways to archive the work and lives of those who have been historically left out of traditional archival spaces.

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2024 Annual Fellowship Newsletter

Each year, Fellowship alums share personal and professional updates, which make up our annual newsletter. Fellows from cohorts since 2008 share what they’re up to, from promotions to new roles, and from new degrees to new family members. 

Here’s a taste of what alums have achieved:

  • Became an executive director
  • Started a new role in restorative justice
  • Moved from Serbia to Zambia
  • Finishing their Master in Social Work
  • Starting an MBA in July

… and so much more! Read our latest Fellowship newsletter to learn more about what our amazing alumni are up to across the spectrum of social impact, and beyond!

 

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The Power of Field Trips

Most of my direct service consists of teaching interactive, fun and meaningful field trips for K-12 students in the Museum of the City of New York’s special and ongoing exhibitions. Through teaching, I have come to understand the impact that museum field trips and museum education at large provide for students. 

I have seen students really respond to seeing themselves or their stories represented in the Museum’s objects because many view museums as the representation of a community and its values.

Seeing real objects from the past, close-up and in person, is a powerful way for students to understand that the past was as real and material as their lives now. During the field trips, students see some of the objects that are part of the Museum’s collection, some of which are quite old. A question I always get from students while looking at these older objects in galleries is: “Are these things real?” When I respond that they are, the students’ reactions range from awe, to disbelief, and to curiosity, to name a few. There is something special about looking at an artifact up close and in person, especially when so much learning and life takes place on digital platforms. 

Field trips are impactful because students are prompted for personal reflection. I have seen students really respond to seeing themselves or their stories represented in the Museum’s objects because many view museums as the representation of a community and its values. In one of our galleries that speaks to the diversity of New York City, we have a guira, a percussion instrument from the Dominican Republic. I have had many students on field trips get so excited when they see the instrument because they recognize what it is and want to share their knowledge with me and the class.  Students also see other stories or experiences that may differ from their own lives during field trips, helping them become more self-aware and understanding of others. 

Finally, field trips are impactful because they provide students with a one-of-a-kind experience. I did not go on many field trips growing up but for the ones I went on, I still remember where I went, what I did, and what I learned, all while having fun. During field trips at the Museum, students participate in hands-on learning that is inquiry-based and driven by the objects they see in the space which can be different from how they learn in the classroom. They also serve as a supplement to the material they are learning in class, reinforcing what they’ve already learned or will learn within a different context. 

These are just some of the ways that field trips are impactful for students of all ages – I could go on for a while! I love teaching field trips and can’t wait for the many more I will do this school year as my direct service work. 

Picture of Natalia Wang

Natalia Wang

Natalia (she/they) is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at the Museum of the City of New York.

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Talking with Kayla Johnson, FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Clay Studio

A second Fellow will join The Clay Studio in 2024. Thanks to the team at The Clay Studio for creating and sharing this video with us! 

Picture of Kayla Johnson

Kayla Johnson

Kayla (she/they) is the After-School Program Coordinator & FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia.

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Day in the Life: Teaching Artist

In my role as an FAO Fellow here at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, I get to enjoy lots of variety in my day-to-day experience. My direct service work in the fellowship is working with Claymobile, our mobile engagement community program. The majority of this work is centered around teaching ceramic classes in schools, but I also get to teach in community centers, libraries, and farms. I began in this role acting as a teaching assistant, which means that I worked with the lead teacher in setting up the materials necessary for the class and supported students in their creative process. More recently, I have begun lead teaching in classrooms; it has been a wonderful process starting from having no knowledge about ceramics, to learning how to assist, then to leading a residency. Last week, I had my first class lead teaching at Steel Elementary. I started my day at the studio packing all of the necessary materials and then driving to the school. On arrival, we bring all of the materials to the classroom and introduce ourselves to students. 

Each day at work is different and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

As a lead teacher, one of the main components is teaching a demonstration of the ceramic project we will be completing. For this particular class, we made coil bowls which are made of small ceramic spirals using a plastic bowl as a mold. During my demonstration, I focused on the feeling of the clay as it was many student’s first experience with it. Teaching how to make a coil, how to smooth the inside of the bowl, and glazing are some of the main focuses for this project. After the demonstration, the rest of the class is spent moving around the classroom, checking in with students and answering any questions that arise. Many students shared ideas of projects they want to make in the future, what they might eat out of their bowls and share information about themselves and their families. The classroom teacher took pictures of each student with their finished bowls and we said goodbye, all in under two hours. 

After a Claymobile class, I’ll switch over to my special project work which is teaching in our new after-school program. The after-school program started last year, and we are now working with four schools in the area. After unpacking and taking lunch, I’ll set up our studio with the tools and demonstrations necessary for our class. Then, I walk to the school that we work with that day to pick up students at dismissal. After all of the students arrive, we walk to the studio together. Once we arrive, we have snacks and homework help which is necessary time for students to relax and connect with each other. Then we switch to studio time. Teaching in the after-school program can be similar to the style of Claymobile teaching, but as it is a smaller group who have had practice in multiple making techniques, it runs more independently. Some days we offer a full demonstration, others are free-making days where students choose what they want to make, but most days fall somewhere in between. This is a long-term program for students, so the curriculum is built particularly for the students from each school. Connecting with students on a weekly basis is one of my favorite parts of my job, and being able to provide a fun and safe space for students to make art and chat with friends. Working within the after-school program lends itself to a stable consistent schedule which is nice for me and Claymobile gives my schedule some flexibility and fun. Each day at work is different and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Picture of Kayla Johnson

Kayla Johnson

Kayla (she/they) is the After-School Program Coordinator & FAO Schwarz Fellow at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia.

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Reflecting on College and Finding Your Passion

Being in a space of reflection is always uncomfortable for me, but I find that I feel at my best when I am living in that discomfort. I’m reaching the halfway point in my first year with the fellowship, I am starting my goal-setting process at Jumpstart, and in a week and a half, I will be back in Baltimore for my first-ever Alumni weekend. So as I am typing this, I am nose-deep in that reflection discomfort. Hopefully what follows will be helpful for my friends in the fellowship, for myself, and for everyone who has just submitted an application for the 2024-26 fellowship cohort as you head toward graduation and discern if this fellowship is right for you. 

Looking back, looking forward, and looking to where I am now—I realize being present is the secret... It connects you to your senses and helps decide if what you’re doing serves your passions or not.

As I begin this process, and ask trusted coworkers, friends, and family members about navigating professional goals and my early 20s, I have also been thinking back on some of the things I was told when I started college in August 2019 (a completely different world). I remember so much emphasis being put on what my major would be, how I would plan out my class schedule to help me four years down the line, and what clubs I wanted to participate in to make me a strong internship candidate for junior year.  I remember being told that the next four years would be “the best years of my life.” When I look back, I see how unnecessary and harmful that could have been—if it weren’t for Loyola University Maryland’s… shall we say… comprehensive core requirements that forced me to try a little bit of everything and fall in love with learning again. I think we are doing ourselves, and society, such a disservice when we are constantly forward-focused. The purpose of college should not be, and never before was, to set up whatever comes next. College, for those lucky enough to go, is the one time in life where you can learn for the sake of learning. There is no one handing you a curriculum that you can’t deviate from; there are so many options,and through (excuse the cliché) casting a wide net you might just stumble upon your life’s passion. 

As someone who was an overachiever, and whose high school extracurricular list looked like Santa’s Christmas list, I entered college with a clear trajectory. I would take a mix of political science classes but focus on constitutional law, take the LSAT, and apply to law school. I had a ten-year plan mapped out which included moving to New York and becoming a district attorney. But at 1:05 pm on my first day of class I walked into PS 101, Introduction to World Politics taught by an incredible political theorist. His charisma, and brilliance, and ability to make his students engage in questions that have been asked for millennia made me reconsider. I walked out of that class still sure I wanted to go to law school, but thought I might need to take some more classes with him (I would go on to take 5 with that professor—ranging from democratic theory to a seminar on warfare). Class after class, semester after semester I was exposed to things outside of my ten-year plan. Loyola required me to take two philosophy classes, the second of which was dedicated to a small segment of philosophy focused on the environment (recall my mention of stumbling upon passion).

But still, my life and career plan persisted until the summer between sophomore and junior year when I was studying for the LSAT and realized I actually had no desire to be an attorney. I cared about the law, sure, and I have research and debate skills, so I could be successful. But it wasn’t what I cared about. I remember walking up to the living room where my mom was watching a rerun of M*A*S*H, and breaking down in tears because I now had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Except I did. I did because rather than restricting myself to taking only the classes that would direct me to where I thought I wanted to go, I discovered that I was passionate about environmental justice and peace studies. 

I am where I am today, setting goals for the next fiscal year, and thinking of how I am going to make an impact because of that mindset I took in college. I took the fellowship because it gave me the opportunity to do meaningful work while being part of a network of fellows doing incredibly cool and different work than me. Hearing about Kayla’s work had made me want to rent a pottery wheel, and visiting Sarika and Natalia at their museums in New York City inspired me to spend my Sundays visiting different museums in Boston. 

This exposure to difference has been the key to my journey so far. Looking back, looking forward, and looking to where I am now—I realize being present is the secret. Being present connects you to your community. It connects you to your senses and helps decide if what you’re doing serves your passions or not. Most importantly it connects your heart to your mind. So to anyone reading… try everything and your life’s passion will uncover itself. 

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Ryan Corrigan

Ryan (he/him) is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at Jumpstart in Boston.

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Why I Chose Breakthrough as My Host Organization

When I was admitted into college, I could not express how unpredictable my journey up to that point was. Little did I know that, at a point when I thought I had a general idea of what my life would look like during and after my time in higher education, I would encounter the same unpredictability.

I was raised in an area where schools didn’t always have the most resources to cater to their students. During my time in elementary school, in parent-teacher conferences, my teachers would consistently express to my parents how they should pull me out of my current school and get me to apply to magnet schools, if not move to another district area. Initially, my family was able to get me to another school district for my fourth-grade year. The difference was immediately noticeable in the sheer amount of resources that the school and teachers had at their disposal. The school I attended had an ‘Exemplary Campus Distinction’ that followed them for years, indicating that the students performed highly academically. Unfortunately, it wasn’t sustainable for me to continue my education at that school, so I returned to my designated elementary school to finish my time there, all while looking into and applying to magnet schools to continue my middle school education. 

[Breakthrough's] devotion to long-term support for students, focusing on low-income students of color in sixth grade through college, is something that I wish I had growing up.

I completed the remainder of my middle and high school years in magnet schools. While my time in these schools proved to be very stress-inducing, challenging, and overwhelming, it overall prepared me for the standardized tests that would prove useful when applying to college. They also exposed us to many opportunities to grow professionally, from partnerships they had with outside organizations/institutions to providing us with courses diving into specialized topics of our choosing that we wouldn’t otherwise find in other schools. They taught us to write resumes, cover letters, answer college admissions questions, how to conduct ourselves in interviews, etc. As a first-generation student, these schools became a learning ground for both my family and me. 

All of that being said, it also was a very toxic space to be in. These schools train students to excel academically and do everything possible to present an impressive profile for recruiters, whether for college or their careers. However, they failed to create an environment where students were seen beyond their grades and achievements, they failed to create a space that allows for a student to view themselves holistically. I remember the competitiveness of students with one another reaching boiling points, with rankings hinging on minute differences in overall GPA between students. Some students who transferred out of these schools even managed to rank #1 in their designated public schools, a stark contrast to their standing within the competitive environment.

After being admitted into college, some of my colleagues and I, as first-gen students of color, imagined ourselves pursuing medical or law school, aspiring to become successful professionals in our respective fields. After having a long conversation with myself, and really questioning the reasoning behind my actions, I realized my passions didn’t align with medicine or law. So, I began to explore other areas of interest and found myself studying Anthropology and Race and Ethnicity Studies for the remainder of my time in college. In my final year, I focused my capstone project on the reproduction of whiteness in higher education institutions, with a specific focus on the Hispanic and Latinx communities. Through the project, I was able to reflect on my own experience, as well as interview others to gather narratives of everyone’s journey through the education system. 

My path post-graduation didn’t become clear until less than a month before attending my commencement ceremony. I remember the anxiety when thinking about my next steps and whether I would even find something that would fulfill me and allow me to continue to grow. I knew that I would be interested in joining a non-profit organization, but then found myself debating what cause I would search for. In my search, I came across the FAO Schwarz Fellowship and found myself intrigued by Breakthrough Greater Boston. Their devotion to long-term support for students, focusing on low-income students of color in sixth grade through college, is something that I wish I had growing up. The organization takes the valuable resources of magnet schools while eliminating the toxic competitiveness and individualistic mindset, and emphasizing key values like spirit and student-centeredness. I chose Breakthrough, as it was a natural transition toward my interests and future aspirations. 

Since being at Breakthrough, I have learned a lot of things that I did not even throughout my time in college. As my time in the fellowship is coming to a close, I find myself in a similar position as I have in the past, uncertain of what’s to come. What’s different now is that I’ve learned to live with uncertainty, embracing what’s to come in this next chapter of my life and carrying with me all the lessons I’ve learned along the way. Breakthrough has let me have a hand in college success work, engage in programming throughout the school year and summer, delve into development and operations, and foster alumni relations. Although my future remains uncertain, I feel better equipped to tackle what comes next as I continue pursuing my interest in the social impact sector.

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Juan Mojica

Juan Mojica (he/him) is the College Success & Alumni Coordinator FAO Schwarz Fellow at Breakthrough Greater Boston.

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You Want What I Want: Research, Rapport, and Surveys

It’s January at Year Up New York|New Jersey, and I’m once again compelling 292-odd program participants to participate in a research study. That is, a survey-reliant research study.

Ever tried to get hundreds of people to do a survey? It’s harder than you would think. 

The first hurdle: having people even consider it. In client-facing contexts, many potential participants view corporate surveys as “lacking in empathy” and as a general inconvenience (Dholakia 2021). Employee engagement surveys—intended to gauge areas of discontent and improvement within organizations—sometimes exacerbate ongoing issues, failing to address the concerns workers actually have (Wahba 2023). According to a 2022 analysis, online surveys have an overall average response rate of 44.1%: even getting a tenuous majority of potential participants to respond is a major victory for researchers (Wu et. al 2022). Ultimately, whereas sloppy studies erode popular trust in surveys and their application, a good survey is always delicate, intentional, and targeted. Like a coffee shop.

Chat with your future participants. Block out time for them. Make your intentions, methods, and motivations transparent. Take notes on just about everything.

The reason, of course, that you would ever invest time (and sometimes money) in such a particular, harder-than-it-looks research method is the data. You probably want lots of data. Lots and lots of quantitative data. (Kind-of) fast and cheap. Even the best surveys are a relatively quick and standardized method of gathering data on a population: interviews take days if not weeks to process, observational studies require precise planning and timing, and usability studies often necessitate proprietary tools and training. In the context of social impact, particularly in the non-profit space, internal surveys can churn out numerical insights without the budget crunch of an outside consultation.

Year Up, for example, loves its quantitative data—it’s part of its pervasive “Feedback Culture”. The national organization, headquartered in Boston, charts outs surveys across the participant life cycle, meant to track engagement and opinion metrics at critical touchpoints of a trainee cohort’s journey. These “Direct Service Survey” metrics are then, among a myriad of other functions, analyzed by a dedicated team, shared with corporate partners, and play a critical part in the organization’s overall and agile Service Design. Data is used to make data-informed decisions by data-informed teams. Year Up’s New York|New Jersey market, in turn one of the largest across the organization, has its own pattern of surveys and evaluations. After all, as useful as national metrics are, the needs of individual cities, tracks, and cohorts can be very different. That’s where I come in.

My first survey at Year Up, conducted in only my first three weeks of employment, was focused on our contemporary Learning & Development (L&D) and Internship cohorts. Preparation for the Program Evaluation segment of LC Lookback, a biannual market-wide meeting of staff, required a rapid and targeted collection of student metrics. I did what I could with the resources I had available to me—a detailed guide left by the previous Fellow, Nia. Yet, despite still hovering above the 44.1% average recorded by Wu’s 2022 team, I still felt a bit nonplussed at an ultimate L&D response rate of 51.6%. I hadn’t been fully acclimated to Year Up’s organizational culture, wasn’t entirely sure of the research goals of our study, and definitely lacked the time to become familiar with my study participants. As good as the insights we drew, I had a constant feeling that they could have been better. It seemed like trainees, in the midst of organizational changes, had viewed my research with raised eyebrows.

I was missing a rapport between researcher and participant.

Thus, I decided to roll out my own strategy for rapport building. Starting with the next L&D cohort, set to graduate July 2024, I adopted four, simple research practices. If you ever find yourself designing internal research, always try to:

1. Make your research meaningful

Appeal to your study participants’ interests, emotions, and experiences. It might be a Rousseau-flavor cliché, but people like helping other people. People, of course, also like helping themselves. Inform participants of the benefits of participating in your research: let them know that, with the data that they may provide, you can improve not only their experience but those of others. Rather than positioning researchers as exclusive arbiters of knowledge and authority, emphasize the collaboration inherent in your work. Align your interests with theirs. Human-focused research is ultimately the culmination of a researchers’ skills and interlocutors’ contributions. If a survey evaluates the design of a longer-term service (such as the L&D period at Year Up), actively cultivate trust between researchers and participants. Contributing to research becomes helping researchers out!

2. Make your research practical

In the case of surveys, do not make your survey openable only on the second blue moon of a leap year. Do not make your survey consist of 50 consecutive matrices. Do not make your survey a series of 30 required open-ended questions with minimum 100 word counts. Do not compel your participants into responding in a time window that biases their responses. Do not make your survey a combination of the above. Surveys, at a minimum viable state, should be painless to access, complete, and submit. Completion is the second hurdle of a survey, and a difficult survey diminishes data quality and participant trust. Minimize the length of your engagement. Provide gentle-ish reminders. To whatever extent you can, anonymize results and remove personally identifying information. No one enjoys being given a hard time. In particular, no one enjoys being given a hard time in the form of an over-extended Google Forms sheet. Research, at its best, becomes an opportunity to share information.

3. Make your research insightful

Discerning an actual takeaway from research serves as a third hurdle: results should be analyzed, then translated. When elaborating on a previous study, track ongoing trends and patterns: how have organizational changes been reflected in your metrics? Identify your set of key performance indicators, and drill down where and when you can. Document opportunities for expansion in future elaborations of the study. Archive your findings in a way that remains accessible to future researchers and stakeholders. Above all else: make sure you can digestibly communicate your findings to those outside of the research team, especially your participants. To build trust towards your research and those of future researchers, your findings must be actually legible. Research is the production of information. When you perform good research, you begin to assign that information meaning.

4. Make your research actionable

Ideally, indicate immediate actions that can be taken in accordance with your findings. Carry out the easy fixes and continue on the clear points of success. Action—or, at the very least, a plan of action—can make or break the trust of your participants. If you are cultivating trust on the basis that your research will work to the benefit of the participant group, it should work to the benefit of the participant group. Find the bravery to challenge institutional assumptions: at what points can we alter the course of our design or implementation, should it be to the benefit of our interlocutors? Recognize your study’s failings, limitations, and opportunities for improvement. Ultimately, champion a sustainable path forward. Any path of action shouldn’t lead to burn out: it should lead to progress. More than simply considering your research, stakeholders should be able to work with it. Action leads to better outcomes, which lead to better trust, which in turn leads to better research. Some would call it a virtuous cycle.

While these blocks of text may make things seem complicated, these maxims are fairly simple in practice. Chat with your future participants. Block out time for them. Make your intentions, methods, and motivations transparent. Take notes on just about everything. 

Not only have these practices increased trainee trust towards organizational research, but they’ve grown both the volume and quality of our data. I’ve been able to gather contextual research on the experiences of participants throughout the Learning & Development Phase. I’ve been able to build upon the work of of previous fellows, crafting a qualitative research protocol for Year Up New York|New Jersey. I’ve been able to become a trusted advocate for our participants. And most metric-friendly, I’ve been able to raise the response rate from a passable 51.6% to a new high of 95.7%—and still counting!

But as you refine your own research practice, life goes on at Year Up New York|New Jersey. The reminder emails to the remaining 20% continue to fly out of my outbox. My little T-tests continue to sort out random chance from statistically relevant phenomena, my presentation decks prepared for their deployment. Participants pop up at my desk, asking for everything from advice to a laptop charger.

Yet in-between all of my little notes, projects, and ambitions—and a wave of organizational change—our site still had our own End of Year meeting. There, I was rewarded the “Newbie Award,” tagged as a new staff member that had already greatly contributed to the Year Up New York|New Jersey collective. Presenting to the entirety of our market staff, my supervisor cracked a joke about how I was able to bring data into any conversation, presentation, or strategy. Our market laughed. As I accepted my neatly printed certificate, I couldn’t help but flash a guilty smile. 

I suppose, then, I’ve been doing something right.

 

WORKS CITED

Dholakia, Utpal. “Why Customers Hate Participating in Surveys.” Psychology Today. June 6, 2021. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-science-behind-behavior/202106/why-customers-hate-participating-in-surveys

Wahba, Phil. “Too Many CEOs Don’t Know What Their Workers Need. Employee ‘Engagement’ Surveys Can Make the Problem Even Worse.” Fortune. July 12, 2023. https://fortune.com/2023/07/12/employee-engagement-surveys-dissatisfaction/

Wu, Meng-Jia, Kelly Zhao and Francisca Fils-Aime. “Response Rates of Online Surveys in Published Research: A Meta-Analysis.” Computers in Human Behavior Reports 7 (2022). August 2022. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2451958822000409#sec1

 

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Avery Trinidad

Avery Trinidad (he/him) is the FAO Schwarz Fellow at Year Up in New York City.

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