This spring, Penn awarded three Penn seniors up to $100,000 each to implement projects that they hope will change the world. Here's a look at each of the winners:
College senior Vaishak Kumar by Michaela Palmer
While most Penn seniors will be starting jobs or graduate school after graduation, one will be spending the next year in rural India.
College senior Vaishak Kumar was one of three students awarded the President’s Engagement Prize this year for a project he developed to help improve rural farming in India. He hopes to help improve Indian farmers’ abilities to care for their plants and avoid losing entire crops to diseases.
“The idea was, how do we make sure that these people increase their productivity, don’t lose their crops to disease and live dignified lives with incomes?” Kumar said.
Kumar’s goal in the coming year is to help these farmers identify and treat crop diseases. He has identified several target villages, where he will recruit technologically capable volunteers who will help farmers photograph their diseased plants. These pictures will then be sent to scientists at a nearby non-governmental organization, who will diagnose the disease and reply with treatment options.
Kumar will travel to India in June and conduct surveys and research. The program will begin in the fall, and he will stay in India in an advisory role and will continue to focus on analyzing results and data and streamlining the system.
Kumar conducted a lot of research while planning his project and worked closely with his mentor, Dr. Devesh Kapur, the director of Penn’s Center for the Advanced Study of India.
“It’s phenomenal [Dr. Kapur] found so much time to spend with an undergraduate … to develop this project with me and to support me,” Kumar said.
“[Vaishak] is a realist about the … challenge, but at the same he has a sense of optimism which I think is essential for young people,” Kapur said. “He epitomizes the best of Penn students … he has a certain can-do approach to life.”
Kumar has been heavily influenced by his family members who worked in agriculture. Though Kumar grew up in the city of Mysore, India, he frequently visited family members where he saw agricultural issues firsthand.
“For me to see such a stark division between the two modes of life was very unsettling," he said. "I realized that’s the community I want to work for. There’s a whole nation that we have left behind.”
No one in Kumar’s high school ever left India for college, but watching "The Social Network" inspired him to apply to schools in the U.S. He was accepted to Penn and decided to attend — the first time he was ever on an airplane was when he flew to Philadelphia before move-in freshman year.
At Penn, Kumar has explored his passion for filmmaking and enjoys making short films that “explore the medium itself … films about films.” He plans to make a documentary about his project over the next year.
“He inspires you to be a better person … his enthusiasm is really contagious,” said College junior Cheshta Dhingra, a close friend of Kumar’s. “He talks about his project all the time. I know he’s itching to go and start.”
College senior Kriya Patel by Ray Pomponio
For College senior Kriya Patel, the chance to help others is not just an opportunity but a lifelong commitment.
A winner of the 2016 President’s Engagement Prize, Patel will assist women about to be released from Philadelphia’s Riverside Correctional Facility secure identification and health insurance. Her project has the potential to reduce recidivism rates and receive longer-term funding from the government.
Patel is no stranger to providing this sort of aid. While taking the course "Women and Incarceration" with Nursing associate professor Kathleen Brown, Patel gained hands-on experience working with female prisoners. In the course, students traveled to Riverside once a week and got to know the inmates. The course resonated with Patel’s desire to help others and served as her inspiration for the engagement project proposal.
In reflecting on her experience under professor Brown, Patel said the course “put a human face to the word ‘prisoner.'" Patel’s project aims to do the same. She will continue her work with Riverside inmates with a focus on preparing them for life after incarceration.
Riverside, an all-female prison in northeast Philadelphia, has an inmate capacity of 500. While incarcerated, the women receive adequate health care. However, upon release, they are only given five days of medication, Brown said.
Brown will serve as Patel’s mentor throughout the project, providing advice and direction where needed. Together with Brown, Patel hopes to aid not only prisoners at Riverside but their children as well by enrolling them into health care programs. She then intends to track the released prisoners over a three-year period and report her findings. She will collect data on recidivism rates, Medicaid usage and prescription fillings and then pass along her findings to the City of Philadelphia in the hopes of continued funding.
“Enrolling someone and then sending them out into the world is so incomplete,” Patel said.
Ultimately, she would like to continue to work with this underserved population as a career. Patel recognizes the lack of privilege and opportunity for these women. Many are former victims of violence and require medication, care and monitoring.
“She wanted a career path that would allow her to make a difference,” Nursing senior Andre Rosario, a close friend of Patel's, said. Even without the prize money, though, Rosario thinks Patel would have found a path of her own in assisting others.
Her background at Penn speaks to her compassionate nature. A biological basis of behavior major, Patel is also a member of Alpha Iota Gamma, the pre-professional healthcare fraternity, and a volunteer at Petey Greene, a program which provides individualized tutoring for incarcerated individuals.
Modest yet exceptionally driven, Patel thought her application to the President’s Engagement Prize was a long shot. Yet upon receiving a surprise phone call from President Gutmann herself, Patel was ecstatic.
Nursing senior Melanie Mariano by Genevieve Glatsky
Nursing senior Melanie Mariano was conversing in Spanish with a resident of the West Philadelphia Paschalville neighborhood when he told her, “I just don’t want to be here anymore.”
She was there for a class on community nursing, and the man was referring to his difficult transition immigrating from Puerto Rico. She felt unsettled by the statement and worried about the lack of mental health resources in the community. Flash forward several months, and she is planning a project to disseminate information about health care resources in Paschalville in partnership with the Free Library of Philadelphia.
During her junior year, she became involved with the United Community Clinic, a free health clinic coordinated by Penn in the basement of the First African Presbyterian Church in West Philadelphia. Her relationships with her patients sparked her interest in community health and partnerships.
“I thought I would teach these patients what I had learned in school, but in reality they taught me more than I could have ever taught them," Mariano said.
During her senior fall, Mariano took a class called "Nursing in the Community," in which she worked with a six-person clinical section to do a community assessment and health promotion in a partnership with the Free Library branch in Paschalville.
“Towards the end of the course time she was talking about things where you would look at her and smile and go ‘You’re really getting some of these concepts, this is great,’” her clinical instructor Briana Ralston said. ’“She was asking really great questions, and really engaging both the information she was learning in class and some of the challenges we face."
Mariano first thought about expanding her engagement beyond the classroom during her clinical rotations for the course, when her patrons would ask her questions about birth control and HIV testing. She started to wonder where they would have gotten information if the nursing students weren’t there. She brought up the idea of employing a nurse at the library with her clinical instructor and her course directors.
She first met with the Strategic Initiatives Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia which has existing programs that place social workers at library branches. The social workers that she spoke to were eager to have someone with a background in health to help with patrons that came in with medical problems. Mariano came up with the idea to have a nurse in the library to provide preventative health services like screenings and immunizations to empower patrons to take steps towards their own health.
“Melanie really took the bull by the horns and she engaged this project. She didn’t just show up to class, she invested,” Ralston said.
Winning the President's Engagement Prize came as a shock to all but a few people that she told. College senior Aliyah Harris said remembers looking at the winners of the award online and being surprised to see that Mariano, her roommate, was one of the recipients.
“She’s very private,” Harris said. “She’s a low-key powerhouse. She doesn’t necessarily tell all of the trials of her life.”
Although the prize may have come as a surprise to some, her compassion and dedication have not.
“She pours her heart into the things that are really important to her,” Wharton senior Lawrence Li said. “She’s probably one of the nicest people that you’ll ever meet.”
“She has this absolute passion, not only with members of the community,” Ralston added. “She really brought her nursing skills to every interaction she had.”
Next year she will implement her plan. The first three months will consist of gathering information from community members, becoming familiar with the neighborhood and getting to know the library’s culture. That will help her determine her role at the library. In addition to providing preventative health services like immunizations and screenings, she also plans to implement health education programming for topics like healthy eating, contraception or health literacy.
The final portion of her project will involve assessing the sustainability of a long-term partnership with the community. If all goes well, Mariano hopes that the city of Philadelphia will consider hiring a library nurse as a full-time position.
While her friends and colleagues are eager to praise Mariano, she is quick to deflect praise. “I would literally not be where I am right now without everyone who has helped me," she said.
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