Ready for Impact: Graduating Senior a Force to Be Reckoned With in South Jersey

By Tom McLaughlin

It’s funny to think back now, says Sarah Filippi-Field, but for much of her youth, she rarely even traveled outside of her hometown of Vineland.

“It was a major event even to visit Pennsylvania,” recalls the graduating urban studies and community development major at Rutgers University–Camden.

Filippi-Field will pursue a master of public policy degree while on a German Academic Exchange Service scholarship at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at the University of Erfurt.

Those days are but a distant memory now, as Filippi-Field has grown to become a well-versed authority on South Jersey communities – both through her studies, as well as in her active role serving as a program assistant for the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers–Camden for the past four years.

Just as importantly, the Rutgers–Camden Honors College student learned to step outside her comfort zone and take advantage of the academic, career, and social opportunities that came her way.

Upon graduating summa cum laude with a perfect 4.0 GPA, she will go way outside the comforts of home – and the country, for that matter – when she pursues a master of public policy degree while on a German Academic Exchange Service scholarship at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at the University of Erfurt.

Even then, she notes, her focus will remain on South Jersey. She hopes that the experience will provide a “new lens for understanding” some of the issues currently affecting communities in the region.

“I hope to come back to South Jersey and implement the best practices that I’ve learned,” says Filippi-Field. “I think that many of the challenges that we face here can be mitigated through innovative techniques. Some solutions have been tried over and over with no improvements; gaining a new perspective can be invaluable.”

Filippi-Field’s fascination with community development began, unsurprisingly, in the only town that she knew – Vineland. She recalls that she became increasingly concerned with community issues such as poverty, lack of infrastructure, and urban sprawl, and wanted to learn more about city planning mechanisms that attempt to avert and/or solve these issues.

But more than just look on from afar, she made up her mind to get involved.

“I wanted to do something practical because of what I saw all around me,” she recalls.

Filippi-Field in Brazil

As a result, Filippi-Field served as a youth representative on the Cumberland County Positive Youth Development Coalition, a countywide juvenile delinquency prevention effort funded by New Jersey’s Office of the Attorney General and the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders.

Among her many contributions, she assisted the coalition’s Realities of Technology campaign, which oversaw the design and delivery of a sexting curriculum throughout Vineland High School; led the development of a social media resource guide for parents; and organized the Positive Uses of Social Media competition.

This role would introduce the Vineland youth to the Rand Institute, which provides census and crime data analysis for coalition members, as well as researches and presents evidence-based best practices from across the country.

“That experience of working with the Rand really sparked my interest in community development,” she says.

Consequently, when other students were deciding what colleges they would attend, Filippi-Field chose, first and foremost, to continue her work with the Rand Institute – and an urban studies and community development degree at Rutgers–Camden was the perfect fit.

She wouldn’t be disappointed.

“Everything went hand in hand,” says Filippi-Field. “I was able to gain practical experience in the field, while my studies provided the theoretical background that supported the work I was doing on a day-to-day basis.”

Over the course of her studies, she would progress from a comprehensive overview of the many “moving parts” involved in community development to a thorough understanding of policy analysis, urban planning, and research methodologies – with tangible results in the local community.

Her notable projects included working with the nonprofit Parkside Business and Community in Partnership on an initiative focused on improving tenant-landlord relations. The Rutgers–Camden undergraduate researched best practices for improving such relationships throughout the country and created a framework that the organization could use.

“It showed that I could take what I was learning in class and utilize it in a beneficial way,” says Filippi-Field, who also helped devise curriculum strategies, designed and launched a new website, and planned student activities for the Department of Public Policy and Administration.

At the Rand Institute, Filippi-Field became adept in her role collaborating with stakeholders to research, plan, and implement solutions to problems in their community, in addition to providing technical assistance in the form of data analysis, surveys, and quarterly reports to assess outcomes.

Among the many highlights of her tenure, she recently presented a data analysis on drug and alcohol use to the Vineland-based Southwest Council Project to help the group determine the greatest needs and focuses of their programs. On the policy side, she notes that she was instrumental in helping to pass an ordinance in Millville prohibiting tobacco use on certain city properties.

Filippi-Field also organized community-building events, such as Playstreets, an outdoor fair featuring games and activities for youth, held on a closed-off residential street in Bridgeton. She is currently organizing a program called Youth Court, wherein youth “try” their peers without having to report incidents to the principal.

“There are people throughout South Jersey working in their own silos, so it has been amazing to help foster these collaborations,” says Filippi-Field, who is also a longtime volunteer for the American Vegan Society in Malaga, currently serving as the organization’s assistant vice president.

Filippi-Field in Cuba

She also benefited immeasurably from the guidance at the Honors College, where she was encouraged to broaden her skill sets and challenge herself in her studies and experiential opportunities. Moreover, she relished the camaraderie of other students with similar academic interests and goals, participated in thought-provoking seminar-style classes, and connected with various volunteer efforts in South Jersey.

“I think that the civic engagement not only bolstered my academic experience at Rutgers–Camden, but will continue to benefit me throughout my career when I work with community members on different projects.”

It was at the encouragement of Laura Collins, assistant dean of the Honors College, that Filippi-Field decided to continue her studies in Germany – where she had previously visited on a Learning Abroad trip.

Ultimately, says the Vineland native, the confluence of her studies, work, and civic engagement experience has given her “the force to make an impact in South Jersey.”

“It’s been very empowering,” says Filippi-Field. “I think there is often a gap between practitioners and academics. They might think that they know what’s best, but it doesn’t match up with the realities that practitioners face. I look forward to bridging that disconnect between theory and practice.”

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