OptiMize hits record $300K for student social-impact projects


OptiMize, a student-led organization at the University of Michigan, has provided $300,000 in funding to a record 65 students on 36 projects this academic year to pursue social issues they are passionate about.

It represents one of the largest pools of funding for early-stage student projects in the country. Funding for 2018-19 rose from $215,000 and includes $50,000 from the Provost’s Office to fund Detroit projects, said Jeff Sorensen, co-founder of optiMize.

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Students will present their projects at the Spring Showcase at 7 p.m. Friday, at the U-M Museum of Art, where they will receive up to $20,000 to work on their projects full-time this summer.

Some projects involve issues close to campus, such as Building Successful Bridges, which will offer community and skill-building workshops for students of color at U-M. Others will take students into regional issues, including First8, which provides education and resources to people affected by health disparities in Detroit and Hamtramck. Yet others will focus on issues in the broader world like Paani, a project to install water filters and offer health-focused education in Pakistan.

“College students are wanting to do more than just get their grades,” Sorensen said. “They have a sense that we are all responsible about what’s going on in the world, and making it more just and more sustainable.”

What started as a student group with the motto “why not me?” is now in its seventh year and has awarded $1 million to 120 student social impact projects. OptiMize is now a student-led organization funded by LSA, and offers workshops, mentorship and funding to create self-directed projects that make a positive impact.

“We believe college is a time to work on projects to address issues you’re passionate about whether that’s health, education, social justice, poverty, environmental sustainability or anything else you care about,” Sorensen said.

Students with project ideas begin in the fall with the optiMize Challenge, an incubator where students develop their projects.

Many of the projects “are really early stage,” Sorensen said. “We’re trying to help people believe in their ability to do something. We hope to guide them in the direction of how to add value and channel the passion they have.”

Some of the other 36 projects receiving funding this year include:

• Aires Medical Glasses: Glasses with discreet oxygen tubes to reduce stigma of using oxygen tanks.

• Five North Project: Bringing computer access and education to low-resource schools in Ghana.

• GRID Alternatives: Engaging students in renewable energy installations and workforce training.

• Health of Green Sea Turtles: Rehabilitating turtles who suffer from fibropapillomatosis as a result from environmental destruction.

• hEARt: Building an app to provide peer support for students struggling with mental health.

• Host Your Voice: Providing affordable digital marketing and fundraising services for nonprofits.

• Mi Casa Es Tu Casa: YouTube videos and in-person resources for aspiring college students from underserved communities.

• Oshki: Recycling plastic waste from the Great Lakes into clothing.

• Shout: Building an app that makes it easy for constituents to connect with government officials about issues they care about.

• STAA Collective: Exploring identity, sexuality, and intimacy through collaborative art projects.


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