UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Even though the coronavirus pandemic kept undergraduate students from some of the usual summer in-person experiences, there was still work to be done and opportunities to pursue.
Knowing there would be no such thing as “business as usual” in the pandemic summer, Student Engagement Network (SEN) leaders offered 50 individual grants that would fund remote experiences with an emphasis on making a positive impact in the world. As the summer wound down and fall semester began, students reflected on their virtual summer experiences.
As a part of its grant requirements, SEN asks that students look deeper into their experiences and contextualize them in terms of the overall impact on the student’s life and/or their community. Grant recipients were paired with a faculty or staff engagement coach to work through the Canvas course Student Engagement 101: Find Your Why. This course had students develop a “why statement,” think about their journey moving forward, and learn about the principles of civic responsibility, multicultural awareness, systems thinking, ethical leadership and professional skill development. Finally, all grant awardees are responsible for telling their story after completing the experience.
The summer grant awardees came from many academic backgrounds and a total of 10 academic colleges were represented. When asked to choose a growth area they will be improving, 23 said civic responsibility, 15 each for multicultural awareness and systems thinking and one said ethical reasoning. Five were first-year students, 13 were sophomores, 27 were juniors and there was one senior.
Many ways to be engaged
Like in all SEN grant cycles, the types of engagement experiences varied greatly. One student at Penn State Lehigh Valley interviewed (remotely) people who had been affected by the opioid crisis. Another solicited donations from her Boston neighbors to help the organization Misión de Caridad, which works to provide shelter and aid to refugee families. In helping out the State College area, one student crafted and shipped handmade soap while another studied blood swabs of local dogs to confirm a tick-borne disease.
Elena Sgouros, a theater major at the University Park campus, applied her Remote Innovation Grant to her continuing work with the #HereToo project. #HereToo participants gather stories about gun violence then share the stories with theater-makers who make devised performances about the issues.
While the summer project started out by focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic, Sgouros said the racial justice protests began just two weeks later and they then knew they wanted to transition to that instead.
“This movement,” she said about Black Lives Matter, “steered us into the direction of first educating ourselves on Black lives and what it is like to be Black in America today and then taking the steps as to how we might begin to interview Black Americans in the Penn State community to further educate ourselves but also to educate the people around us and make sure the truth of their stories are told.”
Sgouros and other interns interviewed and transcribed young activists’ stories and also began a podcast that will continue to release episodes during the fall that will feature State College stories.
“Looking back and seeing the results of all the hard work the team put into making this podcast happen and interviewing/transcribing young activists’ stories was definitely rewarding, especially during a time like this when everyone is uncertain of how things will end up.”
Matt Ishler was among the summer’s engagement coaches and said he saw a lot overlap between the grant program and his work as associate director for career counseling in Career Services, where he asks that students think about their motivations and how their choices fit into a career path.
Ishler and his five mentees met every Thursday for nine weeks, discussing the Canvas course and how their summer experiences were progressing. As the weeks went on, Ishler said he felt the students were excited for the meetings and bringing energy to them. More importantly, they were forging their own small, if temporary, community.
“When the students came together, they would encourage and support and ask questions of each other that would deepen the thinking, deepen the reflection and collectively they contributed to each other’s projects in beautiful ways,” Ishler said.
Hailley Fargo, student engagement coordinator with University Libraries, was another of the engagement coaches and is a member of SEN’s Faculty Academy. She said her students accomplished a lot despite the unorthodox summer.
“The five students I worked with accomplished so much, even in the face of working remotely during a global pandemic,” she said. “It was fun to see their experiences come together on their poster and the unique ways each of them represented their experiences.”
Engagement coaches also came from a variety of backgrounds: Student Affairs, University Libraries, academic college administrators and staff and teaching faculty. They also met weekly with each other as a group, forming yet another community that drives student engagement at Penn State.
The future of innovation grants
SEN leadership is currently reviewing the more than 100 applications it received for the fall cycle of Remote Innovation Grants. Students who were granted these awards have been notified.
The Student Engagement Network is a joint initiative between Undergraduate Education, Student Affairs and Outreach and Online Education. The mission of the Student Engagement Network is to advance the power of participation by connecting students with experiences that empower them to make a positive impact as citizens and leaders of the world.