The Dodge Q&A series is designed to introduce you to Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation staff as they share what they’re learning and thinking about as they visit with nonprofits around the state. They’ll also reveal a few things about themselves you might not have known.
Today, meet Violet Sharpless, a rising junior at Princeton University, who is interning here at the Dodge Foundation, working with our Education Program to establish an effective assessment and evaluation practice, among other projects. The Indianapolis native was placed here by Millennial TechCorps, which matches young adults with technology skills with nonprofits, NGOs, start-ups, public entities and for-profit companies interesting in enhancing their use of technology to achieve their missions.
Sharpless is one of three Millennial TechCorps interns funded by Dodge this summer — Ben Falter, who is working with Young Audiences of New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania, and Lavinia Liang, who is working with Appel Farm Arts and Music Center.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I was born and raised in Indianapolis, right across the street from Holliday Park, one of the biggest parks in the Indianapolis metropolitan area. But even though I am a Hoosier, my mom and dad are from Brooklyn and Philadelphia, respectively, so as a child I spent a lot of on the East Coast. In addition, my mother is Jewish and my father is Quaker, so I grew up learning a lot about religion and learning to take on different perspectives. All four of my grandparents committed their lives to education, working as teachers or in administrative positions at schools, and my parents are both English teachers and writers, as well. My parents raised me in an environment where discussions about poetry, education, literature, and music were constant, and though I always thought I had broken the mold by choosing not to be a writer or musician myself, as demonstrated by this summer internship, the cultivation of these endeavors through education is an unavoidable passion for me.
What are you studying at Princeton University?
I am majoring in sociology and planning on getting a certificate in African studies.
What sparked your interest in those fields?
I was lucky enough to have many wonderful teachers before coming to college, particularly one history teacher who I had for two years for “non-western” history and AP World History, who approached her instruction not so much as a chance to drill facts but instead as an opportunity to immerse her students in the study of culture.In understanding the value of plunging her students into various cultures, she taught us to understand contemporary issues by first understanding the country’s cultural heritage.
I’ll never forget our class debates, where she would assign us positions that she knew were not congruent with our own personal opinions, giving us invaluable practice in perspective taking, and teaching me how to force myself to understand a point of view that at first glance seemed foreign. While I didn’t realize it at the time, she was directly leading me to my future academic interest in cultural studies, religion, and race. When I found myself studying abroad last summer at the University of Legon in Accra, Ghana, I realized how much interacting with the food, arts, language, and people of a particular region can help you understand broader cultural, social, and economic phenomenon, all of which will eventually define the future of history of a place. Studying sociology, for me, is just this endeavor — understanding how cultural particularities influence broader societal functioning — and the study of specific African nations allows for case studies in this domain.
What drew you to Millennial TechCorps?
Millennial TechCorps is an exciting opportunity for me because I have always wanted to get more involved in the non-for-profit world, and this start up allowed me to develop and apply my technical skills while devoting myself to the community around me. When I was placed with the arts education program at the Dodge Foundation, it was the perfect mix of my ingrained appreciation of education and arts, as well as an opportunity to learn about the philanthropic side of funding, a chance to develop my own tech skills, and an opportunity to commit myself to learning how to remedy education inequalities through the type of cultural celebration and artistic expression that has been so central to my own academic inspiration.
What does a typical day look like for you at the Dodge Foundation? What are you learning so far?
One of the great things about my role at Dodge this summer is I have many different projects that I can focus my attentions on throughout the day, as well as a beautiful office space and friendly staff that make the days feel engaging and varied. On a given day, I typically get to Dodge around 9 a.m., and spend a few hours studying reviews and reports of the benefits and indicators of arts education, most of which were provided to me by Deborah Ward, a consultant for Dodge. I am creating an annotated bibliography from these many studies that will eventually help me in compiling a literature review of many of these contemporary studies on arts education.
After lunch, which, on nice days, is spent on the lovely Dodge roof that smells of fresh basil and dill, I might work with other members of the education staff on my various projects, such as surveying grantees and designing a program guide, helping to manage a new Dodge database that will be used by applicants in the future, as well as inputting grantee evaluation information from previous years. I’m learning a lot about the value of arts education itself, of having a supportive and encouraging work environment, and of being able to set deadlines for oneself and stay on pace.
How do you embrace creativity in your everyday life?
In my life, creativity is significantly about taking the time to notice details in all the “stuff” that surrounds me. By noticing the combination of images and aesthetics that surround me, life becomes a tableau of snapshots, a narrative that one can add beauty to by taking the time to notice detail. As a child going to creative writing camp, singing in choir, and taking art classes, I used to spend more time appreciating these moments through organized creative outlets, which has allowed me now, as a college student who, regrettably, rarely takes the time to produce tangible creative products, to think about creativity less as an activity with an allotted time slot in my day but instead as a way of seeing the world.
We hear New Jersey gets a lot of flak from people who haven’t spent much time here and don’t know about our vibrant arts and culture scene, green places and other little-known gems. What do you tell your friends about New Jersey when they ask?
I’m sorry to say I used to be one of those people who gave New Jersey flak — my only previous experience of New Jersey had really been driving through it, so my impression had always been that there were generally too many people here (coming from a population density of 183 people per square mile in Indiana to 1,210 people per square mile in NJ). But I learned when I actually moved here, that because of this, New Jersey communities have learned how to create beautiful spaces in all different kinds of mediums, locations, and forms, even where you least expect to find them (say, a full herb garden on the roof of an office building).
The longer I live here, the more I learn about all the parks, reserves, and farmlands that exist around the state, making the state just as varied and beautiful as any state I’ve ever visited. In addition, the large amount of people leads to thriving and diverse cultures that produce delicious food, innovative art, good music, and more, all of which I can now promise my friends from home if they come visit me.