If there’s one quick way to annoy Rachael Borné ’13, it’s calling Poughkeepsie “sketchy”—a comment that she has heard from all too many fellow Vassar students. For Borné, Poughkeepsie was and is a huge part of the attraction of Vassar. “Poughkeepsie and my hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, are similar,” she says. “People look at downtown and see some derelict buildings, and they shut themselves off. A lot of people are not used to a working-class town where people sit out on their porches and say hello to whoever’s passing by, so they miss a vibrant and genuine cultural context. Like Little Rock, Poughkeepsie’s not trying to be anything that it’s not, and there’s something special about that.”
Over the past four years, Borné’s involvement in the community—both in Poughkeepsie and beyond—has been central to her Vassar experience, whether in conjunction with her classes (she’s an anthropology major, with correlates in art history and Hispanic studies), the college’s Field Work Program, Junior Year Abroad, or writing for the Miscellany News.
That kind of deep involvement intertwined with a Vassar education runs in the family: Her great-grandmother, Adolphine Fletcher Terry of the Class of 1902, “an incredible and progressive woman,” was a white anti-segregation activist in the South in a time and place where to be so required courage. Wikipedia credits Terry as being “primarily responsible for reopening the … public school system and bringing to a close the Little Rock Crisis of 1958,” an event with nationwide repercussions focusing on the integration of Little Rock Central High School—the same school Borné attended before Vassar.
Borné’s field work experience began her sophomore year at Poughkeepsie’s Family Partnership Center, where she and a couple of other Vassar students created a curriculum for an after-school program for middle school-aged students. She was back there again her junior year, this time interning with Battered Women’s Services. “It was a completely different experience,” she recalls. “That first year, we were coming into the lives of kids who often had no desire to be in an after-school program. But these women were seeking out help, asking for legal consultations. I had a 30-hour training before I could start, and that allowed me to be an advocate for clients seeking orders of protection at family court.”
On a parallel track, she was working outside the classroom as part of several of her Vassar courses, interviewing the Center’s president, Tree Arrington, whom she calls “a mainstay in the Poughkeepsie community,” and conducting a case study of Casa Latina, which has brought a supermarket back to the City of Poughkeepsie by targeting the needs of the burgeoning Latino population. In stark contrast to these urban projects, she also worked on a farm in Amenia, on the Connecticut border of Dutchess County, rising before dawn to help with the production of dairy, meat, and eggs.
Borné also began writing for the Misc her freshman year; she is serving this year as a contributing editor. “They needed more articles about the Poughkeepsie community,” she says, “and I have worked to integrate those voices into the larger campus dialogue.” Her subjects have ranged from local artist Nestor Madalengoitia to the ongoing county jail expansion debate to the nonprofit Children’s Media Project, which has had a strong Vassar connection since its inception nearly 20 years ago.
Junior Year Abroad took Borné much further afield—to Cuzco, Peru, where she worked with 10 inmates on a project of creative programming for women in prison. “Most of them were foreigners who had been incarcerated five to 15 years for drugs,” she says. “We made an anthology of their stories.”
Back at Vassar this year, Borné has gravitated to “more low-key field work,” teaching English language to first- and third-graders at Morse Elementary School. “A lot of the kids are from Mexico, but there are also students from Honduras, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, and Korea,” she says, noting the growing diversity of Poughkeepsie’s immigrant communities.
The constant interplay between her classroom and community experiences has enlivened both areas, according to Borné: “The field work is imbuing my experiences with first-hand knowledge. A theoretical framework can shut you down a bit around issues of inequality and inequity, of race and class. It is easy to overanalyze, but it’s important to strike a balance with lived experience.
“After all,” she adds, “that’s what anthropology is all about: talking to people, hearing their stories, and understanding their points of view that are not your own. It’s been important for me to blur the line between what is classroom and out-of-classroom work. That line is what creates the ‘Vassar bubble.’”
Borné says she is deciding between education and law as a career path. One experience that might influence her decision is a Fulbright Fellowship for the next academic year in Argentina, where she will teach English.
In the meantime, Borné says she is “not an anomaly,” and that there is a strong group of Vassar students with experiences as varied as hers. And she has advice for the students who will follow her path at the college: “Making yourself comfortable in Poughkeepsie is as easy as going for a walk or exploring the city by bike. And it’s more exciting than sitting in the library for five hours writing a paper. Our location is something unique about Vassar. We are on the outskirts of a rich cultural community with a wealth of opportunities for young people to plug into.”
Photo, top, ©Vassar College-Buck Lewis; bottom, courtesy of Rachael Borné