Students discussing OptiMize projects

Helping Students Make an Impact

April 14, 2014 | by Brian Short

Michael Chrzan knew what he wanted to do, but he didn’t know how to do it.

When Chrzan watched the documentary Waiting for Superman, he didn’t necessarily think of himself as a statistic. But in that movie, education advocate and Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada listed one fact that immediately caught Chrzan’s attention: Children in poverty were more likely to know someone who has been to prison than someone who has been to college.

Chrzan—featured on the LSA Today site last fall for his work as an intern in Breakthrough New York—knew the truth behind the quote. Chrzan’s mother had spent time behind bars before he was five years old. 

What made the difference for Chrzan were the relationships he developed as a student and as a mentor through a Detroit-based tutoring program called Math Corps. “It became a cornerstone of my life,” he says.

Inspired by Math Corps and Waiting for Superman, Chrzan, now a math major in LSA, recently founded the student organization Champions: Detroit. The goal of his student-run organization is to create an even more ambitious mentorship program that would pair U-M students with high school students in Detroit.

The objective is to give students in his hometown of Detroit the skills not only to get into college, but to succeed and lead once they get there. Currently, only 26 percent of youth from the city complete the first year of a post-secondary degree program, according to Data Driven Detroit. Yet, students involved in quality mentorship programs are 20 percent more likely to go to college and graduate, according to the National Mentorship Partnership. They’re also more likely to be leaders in extracurricular activities and less likely to be involved in negative activities outside of school.

So Chrzan had personal and statistical proof that Champions: Detroit was a good idea. But he didn’t know quite what to do next.

That’s when Chrzan and Champions: Detroit found optiMize’s Social Innovation Challenge.

Change the World

The optiMize Social Innovation Challenge, now in its second year, seeks to encourage students across the University to use innovative thinking and creativity to address a range of social issues. The Social Innovation Challenge has included groups looking to build farms in Detroit, provide equitable and accessible financial services in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, empower students to get the most from their college experience, and use technology to decrease the environmental footprint of residential homes.

“We wanted to bring a real attention to how the actions that students take as a community impact the world and the communities around us,” says alumnus Jeff Sorensen (’12), co-founder of optiMize. “Michigan students are going to make an impact in some way. If there’s real focus on it being a positive one, I think the overall effect on southeast Michigan and the world could be massive.”

Here’s how it works. Teams such as Champions: Detroit apply for the competition in October. Qualifying groups are selected and attend a series of planning and logistical workshops as well as “Innovate Nights,” where they work alongside other competition participants. The purpose of the workshops and presentations is to get students thinking about the logistics that changing the world requires, a focus that Chrzan knew that Champions: Detroit sorely needed.

Students present for optiMize

Above: LSA first-year students Praveen Loganathan (left) and Alexander Cox (right) make their pitch to judges during optiMize's Social Innovation Challenge. Top photo: LSA first-year student Azba Gurm participates in an optiMize workshop at Menlo Innovations. Cover photo: U-M master's student Nick Cobane participates in an optiMize workshop.

“The Social Innovation Challenge made us think critically about how we are going to build our program and showed us that the structure of an organization is as important as why you’re building it,” Chrzan says. “What communities will we impact? Who benefits from our programs? What needs are we actually fulfilling in the community? Those are the really powerful questions that we had starting off and optiMize really helped us work through them.”

Mentoring the Mentors

optiMize co-founders Sorensen, Tim Pituch (’12), and Michael Maiorano (’13) were friends and housemates at U-M. All three earned degrees from LSA, and all three saw similar patterns in their classes at the University.

“We talked a lot about how students in our classes came up with really interesting ideas to address societal problems in innovative ways,” Sorensen says. “But then the semester would end, the next semester would start, and no one would do anything.”

The trio became more and more convinced that there was an untapped passion in students for taking action on social problems. They made a preliminary plan for optiMize, but they knew that they couldn’t launch their idea alone.

“What’s interesting about optiMize is that they recognized early on that a partnership with a college could be a really interesting and productive thing,” says Phil Deloria, the Caroll Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor of History.

“But an LSA program had to be different than programs that focused solely on technological invention or business building.

“Starting a business can be a wonderful outcome, but we were more interested in problem-solving and creativity around social issues,” Deloria says. “We [at the College of LSA] are trying to see the world, get leverage on the present, and figure out what to do next.”

Together, Deloria and optiMize organized a series of classes to spur students into thinking about social issues and creative problem solving. Deloria helped the group tailor their program to the academy.

Deloria’s mentorship has been “absolutely instrumental,” to optiMize’s success, Sorensen says. “We couldn’t have done it without his vision and leadership.”

The Next Level

optiMize has increased its total participants from 90 students last year to 213 students this year, and has increased the number of teams involved from 26 in 2012-13 to 56 in 2013-14.

Earlier this month, five winning teams from the Social Innovation Challenge were chosen to receive $5,000 each to bring their plans to fruition. Champions: Detroit wasn’t one of them.

But Chrzan and his team aren’t letting the loss stop their mission.

“Not having a win just means that we have a little more broadcasting to do,” Chrzan says. The group is hoping to raise $5,000 in order to fund a pilot program that will connect 15 mentors with current high school students.

But winning the challenge—or sustaining an organization or business—was never the only goal of the contest.

“There is no way in which the measure of a social innovation program should be how many successful projects or startups there are,” Deloria says. “Those are wonderful things and you expect to see some of, it and you’re really excited for students when you do.

“But the real tradeoff is getting students to be agents of their own lives,” Deloria continues, “to get them active and to create a venue and a structure where they can really thrive.”

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