Mason Students Serve Virginia Communities in Summer Project

Posted: October 24, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Nick Walker

Mason students Halima Ali, Latonya Austin, Justin Fogata and Purcella Smith spent their summer serving low-income communities around Petersburg, Va.

Working with the nonprofit the Phoenix Project, students from Mason and other universities attended classes for two weeks on issues such as social entrepreneurship and nonprofit management. The next four weeks featured experiential learning by small groups of students sent to work on a variety of projects.

Student Justin Fogata with children
Mason student Justin Fogata spent the summer in low-income areas of Petersburg, Va., as part of an experiential learning project.
Photo courtesy of Justin Fogata

“We learned everything from strategic communication to the history of nonprofits,” says Fogata, a senior communication major with a concentration in persuasive and political communication.

Both Fogata and Austin have previously participated in Mason’s Alternative Break programs. Fogata co-led a service trip with the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental organization focused on refugee resettlement issues. In the past, he has also worked with issues related to HIV and AIDS in Lesotho, South Africa.

“Each group worked on four or five projects,” says Austin, a senior communication major with a concentration in public relations and a minor in business. Austin was team leader for a sustainable project with Battersea Mansion Inc. She also helped to create a database for a battered women’s shelter, assisted a local school with grant writing, and worked with Foster Grandparents, an organization that places senior citizens in local schools as teachers’ aides.

The Phoenix Project is a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that partners state universities with distressed communities. In September, Mason, the Phoenix Project and the Craigslist Foundation received a $500,000 three-year award from Learn and Serve America to build a social networking resource for community and service learning.

“I worked on a human rights outline for an adult day-care provider in an effort to get their organization federally licensed,” Fogata says. “Our group also created a business plan for an individual who wanted to start his own school of historic restoration in Petersburg. Our third project was to update the emergency operations plan for the Petersburg Fire Department. Lastly, we worked with an organization that creates interactive maps for distressed communities.”

Austin, a native of Chester, Va., enjoyed serving communities only a few miles from her hometown.

“This was my first time in a business environment, other than my work in communication and public relations,” Austin says. “I hadn’t really been exposed to the business/professional world, so it was a bit of a shock but well worth it. It helped to prepare me for a business-oriented future and helped me to declare my minor as business.”

“I learned the administrative aspect of nonprofit work,” Fogata says. “Also, the program touched on a new innovative approach to solving community issues [called] social entrepreneurship,” he adds. “I plan on applying for the Peace Corps in the near future. As far as right after college, I intend on moving to Brooklyn and working for a nonprofit in the meantime.”

Write to at