This summer, my journey led me from the close-knit community of my hometown to Washington, D.C., where I had the privilege of participating in a fellowship program that would profoundly impact my perspective on relationships and community. Growing up, I had always understood the value of a supportive community that emphasized learning and personal connections. Yet, it wasn’t until this summer that I fully grasped the depth and importance of these values and the working role that they had in public interest communications and personal lives. The Frank Karel fellowship brought me into contact with a diverse group of fellows and mentors who were incredibly intentional about building meaningful relationships. Their dedication to fostering connections left a deep impression on me. 

Now, let me share with you how this journey unfolded in Washington, D.C., where I had the opportunity to work with the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program’s Communications team and witness the innerworkings of connection and community. From the moment I stepped into the Aspen Institute’s office, I was welcomed into a world where relationships weren’t just casual acquaintances but rather intentional bonds that transformed coworkers into a family. One of my fondest memories from the summer was during “Home Week” This unique event brought everyone involved in the College Excellence Program to D.C. It was a week where old friends rekindled their relationships, and new ones were warmly embraced. The sense of belonging was substantial, and it truly felt like we were part of a larger family united by a shared purpose. 

Working closely with the College Excellence Program (CEP) revealed how they valued not only their internal relationships but also their connections with the communities they served. CEP built intentional relationships with college presidents and leaders, and this commitment was evident in the outcomes. It was heartwarming to see schools celebrate when they qualified or won the Aspen Institute Prize. And exciting when we witnessed the outcomes of our work together, like transfer students being talked about and recognized on the national level at the “National Summit on Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.” These accomplishments were not just about recognition but a testament to the collaborative efforts of the entire community.  

The College Excellence Program’s work extended far beyond the walls of academic institutions. Their programs, recommendations, and initiatives had a tangible impact on the students and the communities they would later call home. CEP played a pivotal role in bridging the gap between presidents, stakeholders, and students. By analyzing data, showing it to leaders, and talking with students they truly got an in-depth perspective from all viewpoints and helped to figure out solutions to any problems.  

No journey is without its challenges, and during my time in the fellowship, we encountered a significant one. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against Affirmative Action hit hard, not just for me but for all my dedicated colleagues who had tirelessly worked to level the educational playing field for students seeking higher education. It was a devastating blow. However, it was in the face of this adversity that I witnessed the true spirit of resilience and the importance of deep relationships with coworkers. My coworkers rallied together, immediately shifting their focus to a different set of questions: “What do we do now?” and “How can we continue to create programs that promote equitable education? “This experience underscored that the bonds we had forged within our team were not just professional but also personal. These deep connections fueled our determination to overcome obstacles and keep pushing for positive change, even in the face of setbacks. 

During my time at the Aspen Institute, I had the privilege of meeting truly remarkable leaders who shared their invaluable wisdom. Not only did I have the opportunity to connect with inspiring figures within the institute, but I also had the chance to interact with incredible leaders from other fellowships and individuals who generously took time out of their day to engage with us. Among the many pieces of advice that resonated with me, one came from a remarkable individual named Allyn Brooks. 

Allyn emphasized the importance of remembering our roots and staying connected to the communities that have played a pivotal role in shaping us into who we are today. These words struck a deep chord within me, reinforcing the significance of remaining grounded in our origins and acknowledging the people and experiences that have molded us. It’s our roots and past experiences that keep us attuned to the very communities we aspire to assist in the nonprofit world. They serve as a reminder of what it feels like to be on the receiving end, which is why building genuine human connections is vital not only with those around us but also with the individuals directly affected by the decisions, outcomes, and choices we make. In essence, Allyn’s wisdom served as a constant reminder that to truly make a meaningful impact in the nonprofit sector, we must cultivate authentic relationships, not only within our immediate circles but also with those whose lives are touched by the work we do. These connections, deeply rooted in empathy and understanding, are the bridges that enable us to build a better future for all. 

My summer in Washington, D.C., with the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, and the Frank Karel Fellowship was profoundly transformative. It taught me that deep and intentional relationships are the foundation which meaningful work is built upon.  

Reflecting on this experience, I carry invaluable lessons and enduring bonds forward. When asked for internship recommendations or job opportunities for college students, my top choice will always be the Frank Karel Fellowship. It’s a chapter I’ll share with my children and reminisce about through photos and stories. 

I already miss the shared Sunday night dinners prepared by fellow interns, Courtney’s (our supervisor) insightful Washington tours and expert recommendations, spontaneous weekend adventures, boat dinners filled with dancing and laughter, midnight movie escapades, and all the unique memories created in D.C. But above all, I miss my friends and my newfound family. I am forever grateful for the connections that turned a fellowship into a journey of growth, warmth, and cherished memories. As I move forward, I take with me the essence of community and the power of connections, knowing they will continue to shape my personal and professional journey.