Bruno became a Davidson Impact Fellow, working at a community clinic in Concord, N.C. The busy year allowed him to use the skills he developed as an undergraduate and gain hands-on experience not found in the classroom.
“I could have done research in a lab after graduating,” he says, “but this exposed me to a side of health care that some clinicians never have a chance to see. Becoming aware of how much impact I can have was really powerful.”
The Davidson Impact Fellows program – known on campus as DIF – began in 2013 as a way to build on the college’s commitment to civic engagement and help graduates transition from college to work or graduate school. While tackling projects that address community challenges, Fellows receive a first-hand look into what it’s like to work for a social change organization. A three-year, $450,000 grant from The Duke Endowment helps support the program.
More than 80 graduates have worked as Fellows, including 14 who began their jobs this summer. The college says that 10 percent of the graduating class applies for a spot in the program, so the selection process is competitive.
Fellows can choose from a dozen health, education and environmental organizations, including the Arts and Science Council in Charlotte, the Georgia Justice Project in Atlanta, Habitat for Humanity International in Washington, D.C., the Touch Foundation in New York and Tanzania, and the Community Free Clinic in Concord, N.C. The nonprofits agree to give Fellows significant responsibility at the programmatic and policy level and provide training and mentoring. They also pay a portion of the Fellow’s salary, with Davidson paying the rest.
As one measure of DIF’s success, the organizations remain in the program year after year. There’s even a waitlist of sites that want to join.
“Having these creative, energetic Fellows come in has really paid off for us,” says Tom Okel, executive director of the Catawba Lands Conservancy in Charlotte. “The nonprofit world is not very good at creating good entry points for people who potentially want to look at it as a career, and this is a great program for recent grads to get on the inside and have a closer relationship with an executive director and a meaningful project.”
In recent years, DIF alums have typically stayed in the nonprofit sector, demonstrating a continued commitment to social change. Many have pursued an advanced degree in a field that aligns with their Fellowship position, indicating that hands-on work served as a valuable guide for setting their goals. A few have accepted permanent positions with the organizations they worked for.
After earning her Davidson diploma in 2014, Caitlin James became a Fellow at the Arts and Science Council, where she created an “engagement toolkit” for a documentary about the importance of arts education for children. The experience helped her build confidence in her ideas as she put them into practice.
“They told me, ‘Here’s the project and the result we’re looking for, but how you get there and what it looks like is up to you,’” she says. “I learned to trust in my skillset and believe in what I could contribute.”
Now director of annual giving for Davidson, Caitlin credits DIF for shaping her career. “Being able to work with a vice president at an organization that has significant impact in the community was an amazing first job,” she says.
Dots on the Wall
On the first sweltering morning of the summer, a dozen people fill a waiting room at the Community Free Clinic in Concord. The facility, which provides medical care and medicine at no cost to low-income uninsured adults with chronic health conditions, hired Bruno as its first Davidson Impact Fellow in 2017-18.
Bruno had just finished four years of studies as a biology major. The clinic had just gone through a strategic planning process.
“He was instrumental in helping us develop some of the priorities we had set,” says Executive Director Marie Dockery. “He was always there with his dots on the wall to help us see where the patients were, where transportation systems were. He gave us a lot of core information that was critical in being able to move forward.”
Marie was so pleased with Bruno’s work, she hired a second Fellow for 2018-19. Kelly Friers, also a biology major, is helping the clinic learn more about the patients they serve and their social determinants of health, such as safe housing, transportation and access to employment opportunities. She plans to become a nurse.
“This has given me a rare opportunity to directly touch so many lives,” Kelly says. “I find out about these critical, basic needs that people have, and then we try to connect them to resources that will help. It’s not an up-in-the-air idea that we might have in a classroom. It’s actually happening.”
Now studying at Weill Cornell Medicine in Qatar, Bruno says his year at the clinic was invaluable. He worked on a team that helped develop a pathway for community members to navigate the local network of care. The goal was to strengthen a referral and enrollment system with web-based software that will help patients access critical services.
“At a liberal arts college like Davidson, you have a wide variety of experiences that will prepare you well for life after graduation,” he says. “This is one that will stay with me forever.”