Two Wharton alumni raised nearly $20,000 in a virtual fundraiser event for their President’s Engagement Prize-winning project, which aims to launch improv theater programs across 20 more schools in Philadelphia.
Last spring, 2020 Wharton graduates Meera Menon and Philip Chen won the President’s Engagement Prize and created The Unscripted Project, a non-profit that helps bring improv theater training – as well as life skills such as public speaking and communication – to Philadelphia youth through free 10-week workshops for sixth- to 12th-grade students. Inspired by the way their own performing arts experiences helped them cultivate leadership skills growing up, the pair received $100,000 to implement their project and $50,000 each for living expenses.
The duo has already worked with 145 students across Unscripted workshops in six middle and high schools across Philadelphia — Paul Robeson High School, Science Leadership Academy, Franklin Learning Center, KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy, Wagner Middle School, and Samuel Fels High School. All six schools, five which are in the Philadelphia School District, are operating virtually until further notice due to COVID-19.
The nonprofit also recently wrapped up their first professional development workshop for 20 teachers in the Philadelphia School District, Menon said during the event.
The fundraiser, which took place on Wednesday, was deemed a success, with 135 people collectively raising $18,771 out of the project's $20,000 year-end goal.
Notable Penn figures, including Penn President Amy Gutmann and Senior Theatre Arts lecturer Marcia Ferguson, were featured guest speakers at the event. Penn Glee Club and Penn Masala also performed, while Without a Net, Penn’s improv group, showcased its podcast, "Without a Show."
Gutmann lauded Menon and Chen for their keen understanding of the importance of effective communication in everyday life, and added that improv is a useful tool for everyone.
“Learning how to collaborate is key," Gutmann said at the event. "Their program empowers students through the art of improvisation. It improves listening skills and helps them speak confidently and creatively. Unscripted uses imaginative games to train students how to improvise, and it opens doors to new possibilities."
A few of the group's teaching artists and some Unscripted students emphasized the importance of improv in everyday life, both on and off the stage. Even in a virtual setting, students said that the program helped them come out of their shells and feel more connected with their classmates.
“I enjoy working with my classmates because I really don’t get to talk to them, at all, and just being in improv makes me feel really, really close to them,” Lenda Yan, one of the students enrolled in the program, said during the event.
Chen noted that despite the challenges the team faced launching the project amid a pandemic, the program is especially important considering the isolating nature of COVID-19 distancing measures and remote school.
“We work with freshmen classes who've never seen each other, [and] this is a brand new school year, everyone's virtual, and even the opportunity for them to get active to collaborate, to be creative in the classroom is not an opportunity that a lot of students have right now,” Chen said at the event.
Menon described launching the workshops amid the pandemic as having a “silver lining," considering the team was able to successfully begin and tailor their program to the needs of remote instruction instead of having to suddenly adapt to an online format.
“We were kind of lucky in that we were able to set the foundations of our non-profit knowing the context that we were going into, and then it was all about just adapting to what was needed and what was required of us,” she said during the event.
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