The eight Penn students chosen for the President’s Engagement and Innovation Prizes this year have demonstrated “immense grit, creativity, and leadership,” with projects to take on challenges that “couldn’t be more pressing,” said President Amy Gutmann during their award ceremony.
More than 60 people attended the luncheon, held May 3 at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, including the students, their families, and project mentors.
“All of their award-winning ideas are at their core, simply stated, designed to help people,” Gutmann said. “Across academic disciplines, practical applications, and new technologies, they create initiatives and products that will make life better for many, by helping people to help themselves. That is a powerful message about the Penn difference.”
Awarded annually, the President’s Engagement and Innovation Prizes provide funding for Penn seniors to design and undertake post-graduation projects that make a positive, lasting difference in the world.
Seniors Antoinette Zoumanigui and Selamawit Bekele, both health and society majors in the College of Arts & Sciences, will spearhead a project to help a school designed to empower the marginalized youth of Senegal. Their project, Youth for Vocational Education and Training in Agriculture (Y.V.E.T.A), is in partnership with the Senegalese Ministry of Agriculture.
Zoumanigui’s mother, aunt, and cousin traveled from her hometown of Brooklyn Park, Minn. Delphine Guilao is a single mother who came to the United States from Guinea in 1999, and brought her children from Senegal in 2005.
“I am a proud mom. I came here for the children, to give them a better life,” Guilao said. “Hardworking, dedication, perseverance, that’s what I taught them they needed for a great life.”
Said Zoumanigui smiling, “Yes, mommy,” adding that her mother is an inspiration for her work in the project.
“My mom came here to give us the education we needed to be able to thrive,” she said. “It’s my way of paying it forward and translating that selflessness to bring an education to kids who don’t have the opportunities I was given. This is what I love to do.”
Eighty seniors submitted applications for both prizes this year, with proposals spanning a diverse array of social impact ideas. Each project will receive up to $100,000, plus a $50,000 living stipend per team member. The student recipients will spend the next year implementing their projects.
Through their project Lanzando Líderes (Launching Leaders), Yaneli Arizmendi, in the School of Nursing, and Alexa Salas and Camilo Toro, in the College of Arts & Sciences, will design a community-based, afterschool program for Latino high school students at the nonprofit Puentes de Salud (Bridges to Health) in South Philadelphia.
The three students were at the luncheon with their parents, who are all immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries. They spoke with project mentor Antonia Villarruel, the Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing.
“I’m so proud of them and so happy to see their parents being so proud of them,” Villarruel said. “They are beside themselves and so grateful to the university.”
Speaking in Spanish translated by his daughter, Silverio and Maria Arizmendi, who had traveled from her hometown of Chicago, expressed their gratitude.
“It’s a pleasure. I’m very proud,” said Silverio, who is originally from Mexico. “We are very appreciative of everyone here, what they are doing for my daughter, and all the support. It is magnificent. It gives me joy.”
Through their project Homeless Health and Nursing: Building Community Partnerships for a Healthier Future, Marcus Henderson and Ian McCurry, both in the School of Nursing, will integrate innovative healthcare case management into current programs at the Bethesda Project, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that serves the homeless population.
McCurry arrived at the very end of the luncheon because he was taking a final exam.
“Today was great. I think now it’s all really starting to set in,” Henderson said. “I think the most remarkable thing about this is that Penn believes in us and believes in the project that we are doing.”
William Fry, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences and Wharton School, will use the Innovation Prize as a catalyst for SolutionLoft, which aims to bring the power of software creation to everyone, using its proprietary code engine that enables code to be re-used, streamlining the development process.
“Think of it as recycling code for maximum use at minimal cost,” Gutmann explained.
Fry’s parents came from his hometown of Greenville, N.C. “We are so excited that he has maximized his education at Penn,” said his mother, Elizabeth Fry. “He’s very self-driven, very motivated, and we are very appreciative that Penn has given him the support to do this, to go out and realize his dream.”
The prizes, Gutmann said, are “central to the vision we share for Penn and to the difference our university makes in the world.”
Making the phone calls to the prize winners, Gutmann said, “is what gives me the greatest pleasure. I have the biggest smile and walk on cloud nine” on that day.
“The reactions are priceless,” she said to the gathering. “When I go home that evening I invariably say, ‘This is what it is all about.’ You epitomize what we as a University do… to teach people to do well by doing good.”
Over the past two years, Penn has awarded nearly $1.5 million in prize funds and living stipends between the President’s Engagement Prize and President’s Innovation Prize, making these the largest honors of their kind in higher education.
Some previous prize winners attended Wednesday’s ceremony, including last year’s alums Melanie Mariano and Kriya Patel.
The President’s Engagement and Innovation Prizes are intended to strengthen Penn’s commitment under the Penn Compact 2020 to impactful local, national, and global student engagement, as well as innovation and entrepreneurship.