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Turning Ideas into Impact

Civic Engagement FundThe Civic Engagement Fund at Tisch College helps students across the university launch projects with purpose.


One of the reasons Stephie Coplan chose Tufts was because of its commitment to active citizenship. During high school, she played piano at hospitals for kids and wounded soldiers. "I was using music as a way to reach out to the community and get involved," says Coplan.

But between working a full-time job during freshman and sophomore years and the rigors of her classes, Coplan says, "I lost sight of why I picked Tufts."

Last semester, when Coplan began working as a civic engagement resident adviser in Haskell Hall, she was tasked with passing out door tags advertising the top 10 ways to be active citizens at Tufts. One way was the Tisch College Civic Engagement Fund. "I thought, 'What a great idea,'" recalls Coplan.

So, combining her love of musical theatre (she plays piano for many productions at Tufts) with her interest in education (she volunteers 12 hours a week with Jumpstart at a local low-income preschool), Coplan applied for funding to start Broadway2Broadway, an initiative that gives kids at the West Somerville Neighborhood School an opportunity to delve into the performing arts for a couple of hours a week.

"I only regret that I didn't do it sooner," she says.

The Civic Engagement Fund started in 2005 as a way to make Tisch College's resources more available to the broader student body. It targets undergraduate and graduate students who need funding and support to turn their ideas into reality.

"It allows students to have a project that they themselves initiate, that they feel passionate about," says Tisch Senior Program Manager Mindy Nierenberg. "The Civic Engagement Fund provides students with both financial and programmatic support for a project that has tangible outcomes. With something that has been just a spark in a student's mind or an idea, this allows them to see it come to fruition."

The goal of the fund is not to subsidize an entire project but rather provide the financial boost it needs to get off the ground. Organizers help students to be creative in finding multiple funding sources, building relationships with other departments and organizations along the way. Coplan, for instance, received donated tickets from Torn Ticket II to the production of "Into the Woods" her Somerville students will see in April, as well as funding from the history and drama departments.

"It's more [about] nurturing them through the process of having conceptualized their project to seeing it through to a successful completion. It's being there when they need assistance and being proactive to make sure the project is on track," says Nierenberg.

Civic Engagement Fund

Stephie Coplan in her dorm room at Haskell Hall.

Civic Engagement Fund projects originate outside of Tisch College, often complementing the student's academic focus. Students undergo a rigorous application process, and if accepted, they receive not only financial support but ongoing assistance in managing their project, developing the skills needed to run a successful program along the way. Tisch College helps them place their project in one of Tufts' host communities. While most students bring their own ideas, they can also choose from the list of community-identified projects from which Tisch Scholars select their projects.

"It's not just the students," notes Coplan. "People at Tisch College themselves are excited about this and engaged. They aren't hands off."

Seizing an Opportunity

Senior Andrew Flanagan feels that the comprehensive application process for the Civic Engagement Fund benefited his project.

"I really appreciated that, actually," he says. "It made sure that I had a very well thought out plan for what I wanted to do."

After studying abroad in Chile last year, where he worked as a teacher's assistant in an English classroom, the history major saw how students benefited by learning from a native speaker. "It made me think of how that kind of thing could be shared with other people," he says.

The idea, however, was more complex to implement than he initially thought it would be. So he applied for assistance from the Civic Engagement Fund, collaborating with project coordinator Rachel Szyman. Along with graduate student Tina Johnson, Szyman regularly checks in with students on the status of their programs and provides guidance if needed. Eventually, he found a Spanish teacher at Somerville High School interested in his project and connected with Jenna Robey, a Tufts student currently studying in Chile.

With the funding from Tisch College, Flanagan purchased eight webcams to set up in a computer lab at the Somerville high school. Using videoconferencing software, students will take turns having one-on-one interactions with their counterparts in Chile, talking about Latin American arts and culture.

Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine second-year students Amy Vlazny and Karen Allroy have also benefited from a close collaboration with the Civic Engagement Fund. The two had already begun planning a vaccine clinic, using rabies vaccines donated by the Alliance for Rabies Control, when they learned about the Civic Engagement Fund—which, it turned out, supported a similar project the previous year.

Vlazny and Allroy realized that they needed more than just the donated vaccines to make the clinic worthwhile, so they applied for support from Tisch College. With the funding, they were able to purchase multilingual informational materials and pay translators who will be on site during the clinics. They are also now working in partnership with the Worcester Animal Rescue League, which partnered with last year's vaccine clinic project.

"Before this, we essentially had no one," says Allroy. "It makes a difference having just a little bit of a cushion." (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Photos by Alonso Nichols, University Photography. (Homepage photos: Members of Child's Right to Thrive at an outreach event in Cambridge, Mass. Top photo: Dmytro Say of Child's Right to Thrive at the Cambridge event.)

This story originally ran on Apr. 6, 2009.