Shivapriya Nair standing on a pebble beach wearing a jacket, pants and pink sneakers, smiling at the camera.

The following is a reflection written by Shivapriya “Priya” Nair `24, Middlebury College’s Newman Civic Fellow 2023-2024.

I recently had the pleasure of participating in a Compass Lab run by the Center for Community Engagement (CCE) to help first-year students reflect on the ‘through-lines’ of their lives. Where did they find belonging before Middlebury? What did they care about, how were their interests and values shaped over time, and how could this inform how they built relationships and community in college? As part of facilitating a portion of this session, my close friend and I recapped our experiences with community engagement. I was surprised at some of the themes I discovered about myself. 

I joined the Community Connected Learning class with Kailee Brickner-McDonald in Fall 2021. It was my first in-person semester at college, and I had honestly registered for the course as a random exploration. It was exciting to think about applying what we learned in a real-world setting rather than just learning theory in an ivory tower. I was immediately drawn to working as a facilitator for a BIPOC affinity space at Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol because it seemed that my social identities aligned with what was needed. I had also worked in similar roles throughout high school. Over the course of that semester, I learned a massive amount about the incredible emotional dedication, resilience, and complexity involved in civic engagement. We often pick what we want to do based on some aspect of our identities. Still, we also must learn the importance of decentering the self to appreciate and honor the needs of our community partners. Our instructor, Kailee, always emphasized the significance of contextual knowledge and sensitivity to personal bias. Navigating the red tape, politics and bureaucracy, and sometimes tense interpersonal relationships matured my understanding of why action and change can be frustratingly slow and how the balance between work and personal emotional well-being can be so challenging to achieve.

Following my final class presentation, Kristen Mullins, who works at the CCE, invited me to join Language in Motion. This program facilitates language and culture sharing between college students and various schools in the community. Kristen was an incredibly supportive mentor who was flexible and willing to create a new role within Language in Motion that promoted anti-racism initiatives in local high schools. While receiving financial support and mentorship from people in the CCE to continue the work I cared about, I was also in another community-connected learning class called The Perennial Turn. Through the second class, I learned about new facets of community engagement and how it applied to all academic disciplines. I realized that I could pursue a lot of my other interests related to global and environmental health through a community-centered approach. The following year, I worked with Katherine O’Brien at the CCE and the professors of the Perennial Turn as a Project Assistant for the class. In doing so, I learned how to communicate and maintain relationships with community partners and college students.

Throughout all these experiences, the real shining impact in my life was all the impressive and uplifting friends and mentors I was meeting. I had electrifying conversations about social, environmental, and health justice with people who became my best friends. I was privileged to meet many mentors who eventually nominated me for the Newman Civic Fellowship. Becoming a fellow and meeting students from colleges across the United States expanded this feeling because I was suddenly connected with many others my age who cared immensely about taking action to promote equity and justice in their communities. It has been heartwarming to meet and learn with and from people who spend their everyday lives doing what they can to make a difference in various spheres. Including a wide array of interests such as disability rights, social entrepreneurship, education equity, environmental justice, and democracy initiatives, students across the country are thinking and fighting back against the nihilism and pessimism that can be pervasive in our lives. Through the fellowship, students and facilitators demonstrated that activism is not always an attention-grabbing televised event but can also be a series of daily choices and actions that unsettle the status quo. The convening of Newman Civic Fellowship made me feel that there could be many benefits in cultivating deeper community relations and conversations between different organizations on one campus, as well as between various colleges in the country, to foster the sense that we are not alone in all the things we worry and care about.

Ultimately, I am sincerely grateful to the CCE for playing an integral role in my personal community building in college, as well as providing me with professional guidance from a place of personal care and interest in what I care about.

Center for Community Engagement
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753