SESP Opportunities Fund Supports Student Initiatives

SESP Opportunities Fund Supports Student Initiatives

Jessica Holden

For School of Education and Social Policy undergraduates who want to make a difference through extracurricular projects, the SESP Opportunities Fund can make their wishes come true. Last year Mark Birhanu, Jessica Holden, Ellyn Pena, Heather Polonsky, Erica Rodriguez, Aireale Rodgers, Lauren Saunders, Ali Szemanski and Jasmine Wiggins received grants from the fund, which is intended to encourage innovation and service.

The Opportunities Fund was established in 2009 through contributions from alumni and friends who wanted to support the academic and community endeavors of SESP undergraduates.
 Last year the fund brought speakers to conferences on Africa and global health, allowed students to attend conferences, and helped students initiate events on education reform, mentoring and volunteering.

Mark Birhanu

An Opportunities Fund grant helped Mark Birhanu to stage a conference on American involvement in Africa called “Defense, Development and Diplomacy.” This two-day conference brought together leaders from USAID, the State Department and the military to discuss best practices related to cooperation on Africa's major challenges, namely instability, disease, poverty and governance. The SESP funds covered an honorarium for one of the panelists. 

Birhanu, who is currently completing the Princeton in Africa fellowship, says the conference was enlightening for all who attended. “This conference improved my practical and theoretical knowledge on the subject, exposing me to a diverse array of perspectives from the private and public sectors,” he says. The conference augmented his learning as a double major in Social Policy and African Studies, and also provided him with “an amazing networking opportunity,” he says.

Jessica Holden
The Opportunities Fund allowed Jessica Holden’s sorority to award scholarships at its first annual Zeta Phi Beta Epiphany Scholarship Luncheon. Scholarships were given to a Chicago Public Schools student and a Northwestern student. Holden says she is proud of the service that her sorority is able to do, and proud to “better the life of a young lady on her way to college.”

“With multiple people in our chapter as SESP students, the community service and philanthropy that our chapter takes part in reflects positively on our members and the SESP community. SESP values service and working with and on behalf of others. Zeta Phi Beta is a community-conscious, action-oriented organization. We are dedicated to serving the community, something SESP and its students are known for as well,” says Holden.

Ellyn Pena
Ellyn Pena used his SESP Opportunities Fund grant to help support a campus event on education reform for a new organization, GOLD (Generating Opportunities for Leadership Development). The organization “seeks to provide a community of leadership training and empowerment to Latino men at Northwestern and does so through events like the one the Opportunities Fund helped make a success,” says Pena. “The opportunities fund helped us by allowing us to purchase the food and create a complete event with the maturity of a well-established organization.”

“The experience has helped me understand how I want to apply learning and organizational change to education reform and has helped me see how the power of organizations can impact others,” says Pena.

Heather Polonsky
The SESP Opportunity Fund allowed Heather Polonsky to bring two speakers to the 2012 GlobeMed Global Health Summit. The speakers were Dr. Aflodis Kagaba of the Health Development Initiative in Rwanda and Jonathan Smith, a lecturer at the Yale School of Public Health and documentary filmmaker. GlobeMed is a national network of university students who partner with grassroots organizations to improve health around the world, and the GlobeMed Global Health Summit brings together students from around the country to learn about advancing global health. Polonsky, former president of Northwestern’s chapter of GlobeMed, says of the Summit, “I gained insight into the challenges and rewards of global health work, as well as best practices for running a GlobeMed chapter.”

“The Summit provided me an opportunity to understand how the social policy and public health lessons taught in my various SESP and global health courses play out in the real world. This experience has expanded my social policy and global health knowledgeable base, and I encourage all SESP students interested in global health to learn more about the GlobeMed national network and GlobeMed at Northwestern chapter, as well as attend public events during the 2013 GlobeMed Global Health Summit.

Aireale Joi Rodgers
The Opportunities Fund helped Aireale Rodgers to finance her trip to the Next Step 2012 spring conference in Washington, D.C., a conference that allows young women to learn about pursuing a career in the political arena. “The biggest benefit I have gained from this experience is a broad expansion in my network in Washington, D.C. As an undergraduate, I completed my SESP practicum in D.C., and it allowed me to get a taste of the nation's capitol. I left craving more and wanting to return upon graduation. Attending the Next Step conference gave me the confidence to make that leap.”

“SESP teaches us a lot of theory, but it is up to us to put that into practice in our experiences outside of the classroom. It was invigorating discussing social policy issues with other future political leaders, and I know that my education from SESP ensured that I was well-versed and ready to have these deep, thought-provoking conversations,” Rodgers says.

Ali Szemanski and Nicole Yang
Supplies for Dreams
With their Opportunities Fund grant, Ali Szemanski and Nicole Yang staged an annual mentoring event that brings Chicago Public School students to the NU campus to learn about postsecondary opportunities. The Supplies for Dreams undergraduate organization provides educational enrichment to Chicago students, and the organization’s spring event featured “small groups with current NU students as mentors who help lead them around campus, facilitate discussion, answer questions, and lead an exercise about assessing personalities and careers,” says Szemanski. The Opportunities Fund grant covered transportation and lunch costs so the Supplies for Dreams team could focus on improving the quality of the event through communications and research.

“I found that participating in the event was very empowering as it greatly improved my skills as a leader,” Szemanski says. “As a social policy student, I frequently learn about the larger policy issues while I am in the classroom. This event allowed me to actually do something about the problems I was learning about — namely, how students may not receive adequate information or access to opportunities to learn about postsecondary educational options,” says Szemanski.

Jasmine Wiggins
The Opportunities Fund allowed Jasmine Wiggins to travel to the convention for her sorority, the Lamba Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Inc., in San Juan, Puerto Rico. "The convention is an opportunity for sisters all over the nation to meet one another and grow professionally," says Wiggins. "This year at convention, I attended workshops that allowed me think more critically about how and why I should manage my time. These workshops challenged me and made me realize that my priorities were seriously out of whack, and also suggested a way that I could better prioritize what I do in my life. At convention, I was also given ideas that I could bring back to my sisters within my chapter to improve our programming and, more importantly, our relationships with one another."

Another recipient of an Opportunities Fund grant, Erica Rodriguez, was able to cover the cost of housing during her unpaid summer internship with the housing planning office for the City of Evanston. In addition, Lauren Saunders received funding for the NU Gives Back event, a volunteer event for the Evanston community. She was able to purchase poster supplies and rent vans.

Any SESP student with an academic or community project may submit a letter to assistant dean Susan Olson requesting an Opportunities Fund grant. Details are on the Opportunities Fund web page.

Captions: (Top photo) The SESP Opportunities Fund helped Jessica Holden's sorority to award scholarships. (Bottom photo) With their Opportunities Fund grant, Ali Szemanski and Nicole Yang staged a Supplies for Dreams mentoring event for Chicago students to learn about postsecondary opportunities.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 12/18/12