Published August 11, 2020

By Amy Vames

The initiative will place graduate students in affordable housing communities throughout New Jersey to help residents manage challenges brought on by the pandemic.

 Earlier this year, as COVID-19 began to spread through New Jersey, Christiana Foglio, founder and CEO of Community Investment Strategies (CIS), was concerned about residents living in her properties throughout the state. Her company owns more than 3,000 affordable rental units and redevelops urban properties in New Jersey. The communities’ residents include about 2,000 senior citizens and about 4,000 children.

“Some of our families were facing extreme difficulties, from food insecurity to an inability of parents to manage their children’s virtual education,” Foglio DC’84, GSNB’86 says. “Others had limited capacity for quarantining if anyone in the family had been exposed to COVID.” What’s more, mandatory sheltering in place was heightening the potential for domestic abuse and depression.

Foglio decided to connect with her alma mater to address the issues and create a solution. As a member of Rutgers’ Board of Trustees, she was familiar with the university’s School of Social Work and had been impressed by the quality of the school’s graduates.

So around 3 a.m. one morning, Foglio emailed the school’s dean, Cathryn C. Potter, explaining her concerns for residents of CIS properties. “Within a few hours, Potter responded and understood what we needed, and said her team would figure something out,” says Foglio. Soon after, Potter and her team had created a plan for several master’s degree students to do yearlong field placements at low- and middle-income rental properties around the state, where they will provide services for residents struggling with COVID-19.

Field placements, similar to residencies in medical fields, are a signature part of social work pedagogy, requiring all students to provide more than 1,000 hours of service to local communities. The placements are often unpaid. Foglio understood the hardship that unpaid field work can mean for graduate students, so she made a generous gift to provide stipends and supervision for students with placements in affordable housing communities. Her gift will support 10 students in the program each year for two years, beginning this fall.

Students in these field placements will provide a variety of services to individuals and families in the communities, including helping seniors understand the importance of wearing a mask and practicing social distancing; ensuring that K-12 students have the internet connections they need to learn remotely; finding help for parents struggling to supervise their kids’ schooling while also working full time; and making sure that families have enough to eat every day.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to bring social work skills to an important business setting,” says Potter. “Ms. Foglio’s attention to the social needs of her customers/renters is not uncommon; many business leaders are concerned about these needs and are seeking ways to meet them.

“What is not as common is her willingness to think outside the box and build a win-win solution,” Potter adds. “Our master of social work program offers advanced certificates in aging and health and promoting child and adolescent well-being, and these students are a natural fit with low-income housing settings. Truly, it was one of the best late-night emails I have ever received; Chris is a wonderful, can-do person to work with.”

Foglio says she hopes her gift will have an impact on both the students who take part in the field placements and on the residents of affordable communities throughout New Jersey. “We think it will offer really good, up-close experiences for the graduate students and provide extraordinary resources that seniors and families under normal conditions would not get,” she says, adding, “I’m a Jersey girl, a Rutgers grad, and it just feels like a perfect fit.”

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