A Strong Foundation: How the FAO Schwarz Fellowship Shaped My Career

Seven years since graduating from the FAO Schwarz Fellowship and 9 years since the start of my fellowship, the formative experiences, support system, and friendships developed within the fellowship have been foundational for finding and building my professional path.

The value most visible from the surface is a means of accessing a two-year, salaried, entry-level position at a leading non-profit organization. Finding entry-level jobs in the social impact, education, or environmental non-profit space is extremely challenging. Following a long and challenging search, I was hired in 2015 for an FAO Schwarz Fellowship at Riverkeeper, a non-profit organization with a mission to protect and restore the Hudson River from source to sea. After graduating from the fellowship in 2017, I remained on staff at Riverkeeper in various advocacy, volunteer management, and community engagement focused positions for another 5 years. My passion for environmental advocacy, community engagement, and the Hudson River watershed was fully realized while at Riverkeeper and has remained my focus ever since. The FAO Schwarz Fellowship program not only provided an opportunity to enter my desired field, but also provided opportunities for professional development, reflection, and an invaluable cohort experience.

Reflecting upon my almost decade-long career, the influence of the FAO Schwarz Fellowship is clear. I’ve been better positioned to navigate the professional landscape, including salary and benefit negotiations, job applications, creating job descriptions and hiring, and project management.

Below the surface, the FAO Schwarz Fellowship is much more than a means of entering the non-profit sector. 

What isn’t as visible is the relationships you grow within the fellowship network and through the cohort experience. Each year, 6-7 fellows are hired to work at youth- or young-adult-serving nonprofits in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, creating a cohort who goes through the program together and connects through formal methods such as planning and experiencing retreats, working on shared projects within the fellowship, professional development sessions, and informal means inside and outside of retreats. By spending time together, fellows develop friendships within their cohort, and within the cohorts above and below them. These relationships have been invaluable both to my professional development and to me personally—from having understanding and listening ears to talk through how to navigate the dynamics of professional environments, to sharing time-management tools, to finding life-long friends.

Another major component of relationship building within the FAO Fellowship is mentorship: each incoming fellow is paired with an alumni fellow who often shares a career focus. Alumni mentors provide advice, share about their career paths, and support the fellows in thinking through career next steps. These relationships often continue beyond the fellowship, with mentees and mentors connecting at bi-annual reunions and keeping in touch over the years.

The Executive Director of the FAO Schwarz Family Foundation is a tremendous resource. Priscilla has a deep well of advice, support, and kindness to offer as fellows navigate their fellowship roles, but also as alumni navigate future career moves within and outside the nonprofit sector. Priscilla’s support and advice have been invaluable—and her relationships with the alumni network allow her to make networking connections between fellows and alumni.

The Fellowship retreats, which take place twice each year and rotate between the cities where fellows live and work (New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia) are a blend of experiencing the work of each host organization, professional development sessions shaped by the needs and interests of the fellows, and unstructured time for the fellows to connect. Examples of professional development sessions include: disability accessibility and inclusivity at museums, how direct service and systems change work complement each other, personal mission statement development, exploration of leadership styles, and more.

Reflecting upon my almost decade-long career, the influence of the FAO Schwarz Fellowship is clear. I’ve been better positioned to navigate the professional landscape, including salary and benefit negotiations, job applications, creating job descriptions and hiring, and project management.

Advice from Priscilla and others in the FAO network helped inform my decision to return to school part-time in 2019 to pursue a Masters of Environmental Policy at Bard College, which I completed while working full-time.

More recently, in July of 2023, I became the new Director of Environmental Action at the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a regional environmental non-profit organization with a mission to protect the Hudson River by inspiring lifelong stewardship of the river and its tributaries through education and advocacy. My role sits at the nexus of advocacy and community engagement—collaborating with communities, individuals, and other organizations to protect the Hudson River, and is one I hope to hold for years to come.

Whether I’m between jobs, hiring interns, managing advocacy campaigns, or educating the public, the foundational skills and experiences I had during my time as a FAO Fellow have been foundational to my career, and personal and professional development.

Jen Benson

Jen Benson

Jen Benson (she/her) is the Director of Environmental Action at the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a regional environmental non-profit organization with a mission to protect the Hudson River by inspiring lifelong stewardship of the river and its tributaries through education and advocacy.

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