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Penn President Amy Gutmann speaks to the DP editorial board on Jan 29, 2004, prior to her inauguration. | DP File Photo

President Amy Gutmann announced today that College seniors Vaishak Kumar, Kriya Patel and Nursing senior Melanie Mariano have won the 2016 President’s Engagement Prizes.

Recipients of the President’s Engagement Prize receive as much as $100,000 to implement a public service project of their own creation to serve communities on the local, national or global level, as well as $50,000 for living expenses. The prizes were first awarded in the 2014-2015 school year.

This year, two projects will take place in Philadelphia, and one will take place in India.


Melanie Mariano | Courtesy of University Communications

Mariano plans to partner with the Free Library of Philadelphia to educate library patrons about health. She intends to create a “one-stop-shop” for people to receive health information, medical counseling and preventive health services.

Patel will work to help women who are about to be released from the Riverside Correctional Facility in Philadelphia to acquire health insurance and identification to best prepare them to go out into the world. She will keep track of the women for at least three more years to monitor the effects of continued care.

Kumar’s project in India will use mobile technology to improve farmer education, something that is seriously lacking in certain areas. Kumar will also set up an inexpensive mobile laboratory to provide the farmers with timely, personalized information to help them boost their productivity.


Vaishak Kumar | Courtesy of University Communications

Gutmann praised the projects for their uniqueness.

“They’re really original,” she said. “There’s something that’s strikingly, importantly, original about bringing mobile technology to farmers in India, going into the Free Library of Philadelphia and having a one-stop shop approach to health care and enabling female prisoners to make a successful transition to civilian life.”

Gutmann said there were 18 applications this year, a slightly lower number than last year.

Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Director Harriet Joseph said the lower number could have been due to Gutmann’s announcement of a new prize this year, the President’s Innovation Prize, which awards grants to students for for-profit enterprises.

“There may have been some confusion about the difference between the two prizes,” she said, but added, “Next year the innovation prize won’t be new; it will be announced earlier and the distinction between the two will be made much clearer.”

Joseph also said the impressive caliber of the prizes awarded last year may have intimidated some students. Students may be thinking, “I do something engagement-wise, but it doesn’t measure up to what the last four prizes were,” she said.


Kriya Patel | Courtesy of University Communications

Students must also start planning early in the academic year in order to have a strong application. They need to secure a University employee as a mentor, find someone to write them a non-academic letter of recommendation and make initial connections with the community they hope to help in order to work out logistics.

“It’s a very high bar to complete an application, but once completed, I have to say all of the applications were exceptional,” Gutmann said.

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