This year 1,000 University of Michigan (U-M) students have asked themselves, "Why not me?"
That question is the motto of optiMize, a student-led organization that supports students in creating self-directed projects that promote a more just and sustainable world. optiMize offers workshops, mentorship, and a five-month incubator program that funds the student projects.
"Asking yourself our question is a serious endeavor," says optiMize co-founder and U-M graduate Jeff Sorensen. "Once some of the psychological barriers are removed you can actually concentrate on taking steps to create change."
Sorensen speaks from his own revelatory experience upon graduating in 2012. He was striking out on countless job interviews and felt directionless. But through the fog, Sorensen knew he needed to do something intrinsically meaningful with his life. Discouraged but still hopeful, he and a like-minded friend started to take the temperature of other students on campus.
They wondered: Are other students interested in a way to work on projects that they care about, within a supportive community of people, under the broad idea of making the world more just and sustainable? They left no stone unturned, approaching campus clubs for sustainability, health, social justice, entrepreneurship, and community services.
"Everyone said yes. Everyone wanted a place, but no one was doing anything about it," says Sorensen. "Finally, it became clear. Why not us?"
From idea to impact
Since optiMize started eight years ago, over 3,000 students have been organizers, mentors, or participants in the optiMize Social Innovation Challenge. The Social Innovation Challenge awards grants of up to $20,000 for startups and nonprofits. This year, optiMize awarded $300,000 in grants and fellowships to 36 projects.
To date, optiMize has funded well over 100 projects ranging from an app that helps people with chronic illnesses connect with each other to a program providing doula support for incarcerated women.
Sorensen describes optiMize's growth as "wild." The first cohort in 2012 had 50 participants, while there are 1,000 in the current cohort. Project submissions have also grown enormously in recent years, from 130 in 2017 to 460 for 2020.
In 2014, the university hired Sorensen to head its newly created Department of Social Innovation. And while just a few years ago optiMize had an organizing staff of 20 unpaid volunteers, today there are 86 people on the organizing team. Forty-five of them are paid, including five full-time U-M staffers and 40 part-time student employees.
Kirsten Lam first got involved with optiMize a year ago when she was a freshman. She loved the sense of community and the passion behind the organization.
Lam didn't have a personal project in mind, but still wanted to help out. That decision has proven to be rewarding on many levels.
"They motivate me and push me to be a better person," she says. "When you’re struggling, somebody is always there to help you and bring you back up and will stand beside you."
Lam proudly wears a number of hats at the organization. Fostering a positive environment, assisting members, and spreading a message of student empowerment are some of her key duties. Of particular importance is her involvement in the core organizing team that oversees optiMize's social innovation challenge.
"I feel like a lot of people have ideas on how to solve problems, but they don’t feel like they have enough support or access to resources to do so," Lam says. "Instead of waiting for somebody else to do something, we give them what they need to pursue it themselves."
"They helped to turn our ideas into possibilities"
optiMize fellow Evelyn Reyes says optiMize changed the way she sees herself and her potential for helping others in tangible ways.
Reyes is the president of a bilingual educational outreach organization called Mi Casa Es Tu Casa. Her company's goal is to connect first-generation high school students to post-secondary education. As a first-generation, low-income student herself, she first had the idea for Mi Casa Es Tu Casa in high school.
"I put it on the back burner until I found out about optiMize. They helped to turn our ideas into possibilities," Reyes says.
Reyes and her team were awarded $11,000. She's grateful for the professional and financial support that got her dream off the ground. But what she learned about herself through the social innovation challenge has been priceless.
"I can make a difference in my community. I may be 19, but the time to start change is now, and who better to get a movement started than myself?" Reyes says.
She adds that the optiMize community made her team feel powerful, validating her ideas and providing critical feedback in equal measure. Just having people believe in her when she didn't touched her deeply.
Alyssa Shumaker and Kerrigan Fitzpatrick are current challenge participants. Their project, called Mommas Pursuing an Education, aims to support undergraduate student parents in finding the same level of protection and support that their non-parent student counterparts enjoy.
Funding from optiMize could help them establish ways to build a sense of community among their target audience, create a standard document outlining some basic protections for undergraduate parents, and establish an affordable drop-in daycare system at the university.
"optiMize has given us feedback that has allowed us to know what practical steps and direction to take. Being members has also made us more legit in other people's eyes, so there is less pushback," Fitzpatrick says.
"There are less hurdles now," Shumaker agrees. "And I'm more confident now when any come up. I never thought I could be in a position to advocate and make change."
Changing the face of education
Sorensen's hope for the future is that optiMize will just be called college. He believes that there is no reason why every student can't have a formal space that will support them in discovering the path they care most about.
"We're talking with high-level people about what the future of undergraduate education looks like and how the institution can change to accommodate that," he says.
Sorensen has also been fielding requests from other universities who are interested in the optiMize model. Wayne State University and Eastern Michigan University (EMU) have implemented similar programs, and he has heard from Harvard and the University of California, Los Angeles. optiMize has also partnered with United Way of Washtenaw County, EMU, and Washtenaw Community College to create a countywide network of campus innovators.
"At this time we are helping where we can, but concentrating on our own backyard first," Sorensen says.
He's not surprised at the growing interest. Every year at least 100 additional projects come his way, with no signs that things will slow down.
"One of the purposes of university is to look out at the world and ask, 'What can we understand?' But increasingly students are saying, 'What can we do to use that understanding to make changes on the most important questions facing us?'" Sorensen says. "We take those students and say, 'Come with us. We'll help you lead the change you are ready for.'"
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Doug Coombe.