A group of people walk down a street.
Maraena Allen-Lewis' 20 assists the United Way with a fundraiser in fall 2019. Allen-Lewis has been able to continue her Community Fellowship with the group virtually this spring.

Written by

Classes aren’t the only thing at Whitman College that moved online this spring due to concerns around COVID-19.

Some college-funded internships and fellowship transformed into virtual experiences too.

Sociology major Maraena Allen-Lewis ’20 and psychology major Sara Federman ’20 are both continuing to work for the benefit of the Walla Walla community, even from a distance. Federman is serving as the director’s intern for the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health, thanks to funding from the Whitman Internship Grant. Allen-Lewis has a yearlong Community Fellowship with United Way of the Blue Mountains.

The experiences are funded by Whitman’s Student Engagement Center (SEC). The Whitman Community Fellow program funds the fellowships of a group of juniors and seniors at Walla Walla Valley nonprofit organizations that are addressing local social, economic and cultural challenges. The Whitman Internship Grant funds semester, year-long and summer internships for Whitman students at nonprofit organizations, businesses and governmental agencies locally and across the nation and abroad.

This spring, approximately 34 students had active internships or fellowships through the SEC. While many couldn’t be continued digitally — such as those working in K-12 public schools — the SEC worked with students and their organizations to find ways to keep experiences going. About 30 students have been able to continue working virtually.

“We understand that not being in Walla Walla can feel like a sense of loss and we want students to still feel connected to their community in one way or another and so working to keep these opportunities for students has been really important,” said Mitzy Rodriguez Camiro, assistant director for Internship Programs.

Victoria Wolff, assistant director for Career Education, echoed a similar sentiment as she has worked to continue to offer employment to students through the various programs that the SEC offers.

“We are finding ways to allow them to continue to do their work and be creative in a virtual, remote way.” Wolff said.

Staying Connected to Walla Walla

Sara Federman '20Federman, who is working from Seattle, Washington, has found that her internship has allowed her to stay connected to the Walla Walla community during a tough time. The health department’s weekly daily morning update meetings allow her to continue to interact with co-workers and to stay involved with the local COVID-19 response.

“I think that if I didn’t have this internship it would be really hard for me to tune in to what is going on in Walla Walla and to get updated on the news,” Federman said. “It’s easy to feel disconnected when you are geographically not there, but getting to see most of my coworkers faces in the morning and hear about what is going on in town really does make me feel like I am still connected to the community.”

Federman spent the pre-virtual portion of her internship working alongside the director of Community Health. Many of her projects were put on hold, as all resources are now dedicated to the COVID-19 response. Now that’s what Federman is doing too. Recently, she put together FAQ documents about coronavirus to be distributed throughout the county.

“The county runs a hotline and they get a lot of the same questions so we decided to put together a frequently asked questions documents that people could refer to before calling in,” Federman said.

Responding to Needs

Allen-Lewis is continuing her work for United Way on the Blue Mountain Long-Term Recovery Group. from her home in Portland, Oregon. This initiative is a partnership between multiple organizations in Eastern Washington and Oregon. It was first formed in early March 2020 to support the community in the wake of the February 2020 floods. The group continues to focus on flood recovery, but in the context of COVID-19. Early in the year, Allen-Lewis has spent much of her fellowship working on the Educational Attainment Alliance (EAA). The EAA is an initiative powered by United Way that focuses on educational outcomes and indicators in the region.

“What we are doing is much more responsive to the needs of the community – compared to the planning that we were doing before. It’s definitely a change of pace, but that is kind of what everyone’s doing right now,” Allen-Lewis said.

Allen-Lewis hopes to pursue a career in education policy. Her work with United Way has allowed her to realize the importance of first-hand, on-the-ground experience in education, such as through teaching or other school employee roles, before working in education policy.

“Working directly with community members and hearing their perspectives and opinions on issues has been totally illuminating in terms of my career path. United Way’s approach to solving needs and addressing issues for the community is very valuable,” Allen-Lewis said.  

Allen-Lewis is excited to continue her work with United Way even after her fellowship ends this month. She will continue to work remotely on the many initiatives. Recently, a $3,000 program grant from United Way helped provide internet access to the homes of Dayton Public School students to that they could continue their education virtually.

Federman’s internship has also been instrumental in shaping her future plans. She hopes to pursue a career in public health. Her senior thesis involved local public health shortfalls. It was about access to mental health care in Walla Walla county. She identified common but specific barriers that people were encountering in the county and how they can be addressed to improve access to resources. Through this research she was able to connect with the Department of Community Health, which led to her internship.

“This has been an amazing gateway for me to enter the public health world and get some real hands-on experience. Obviously, I was bummed to be leaving it behind and to not be able to go into the office anymore, but I am happy that I can continue to contribute to the team,” Federman said.