Tufts University

Turning Ideas into Impact

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In this case, Szyman says that developing the project was an exercise in being flexible to changing needs. The concept evolved from a single vaccine fair to on-site vaccination clinics at six Worcester Housing Authority sites.

"It was neat to see them go in with one plan but be able to see what the real need was and meet that rather than feeling it had to meet what they intended," Szyman explains.

"Our goal is to run out of vaccines and maximize this donation," says Vlazny. "One way of looking at it is, the Civic Engagement Fund funding is helping us maximize what we're able to do with the donated materials."

Meeting a Need

Since its inception, the program has seen a steady uptick in applicants from Tufts' graduate and professional schools, like Vlazny and Allroy. One graduate student group launched by the Civic Engagement Fund is Child's Right to Thrive, which seeks to raise awareness about children living in orphanages around the world, particularly in Ukraine and China.

With the help of financial and organizational support from the Civic Engagement Fund, the group launched several initiatives, including a website that provides caregivers and childcare professionals around the world with access to social services resources, medical information, and current research in child development. They also held a exhibition last fall of photos from orphanages in China and Ukraine, which opened with a reception and silent auction meant to raise funds for their education and outreach goals.

(Read more about Child's Right to Thrive.)

School of Dental Medicine second-year student Todd Walker, on the other hand, applied to the program because of a need very close to home. At the clinic where he had started rotations, the language barrier between the staff and the clinic’s large number of Brazilian patients seemed insurmountable. According to Walker, "the few Portuguese speakers on hand were "overwhelmed with a patient base they were not able to handle."

Civic Engagement Fund

Todd Walker (D'10) at the Portuguese class he organized at the School of Dental Medicine.

"I talked to professors and others about ways to ease the load but also help more Brazilian patients come to the school instead of discouraging them from coming here because people aren't able to communicate with them," says Walker, who speaks Portuguese himself.

He came up with the idea of holding classes to teach basic Portuguese vocabulary and conversational skills. The program launched in November with financial support from both Tisch College and the dental school, holding classes two to three times per week for a mix of students, postgraduates and faculty. Walker recruited two native Brazilian dental students as instructors, as well as two other Portuguese-speaking students to help out.

(Read more about Walker's program.)

"The Civic Engagement Fund was what we needed to be able to get this program going," says Walker. At the suggestion of CEF organizers, he is also using the Tufts University Science Knowledgebase (TUSK) to post lesson plans and vocabulary lists for busy students who aren't able to attend class sessions. Walker says Szyman and Johnson have been invaluable resources.

"I tell them about my successes and my struggles," says Walker. "They've been great in giving me feedback and ideas of what I can do to make the service project run a little bit smoother."

An 'Infusion of Civic Engagement'

For Szyman, integrating the resources of Tisch College with the existing priorities of departments and organizations on campus not only makes sense, but is ideal.

"It allows for that infusion of civic engagement and moving with the current of the students' work rather than recreating a wheel," she says.

To that end, CEF organizers create resources like an online wiki where students can post project information and documentation, creating a valuable legacy in the hopes that projects continue after their founders graduate.

One such initiative is the Yonso Project, a pen pal program between local students and their counterparts in Ghana. (Read more about the project and co-founder Sonja Good Stefani.) With funding and support from Tisch College, organizers were able to receive money to pay for postage and letter materials, as well as get help connecting with local schools. In the project's first year, it established 500 pen pal relationships between students in the U.S. and Ghana. The next year, the number doubled.

Yonso Project co-organizer and 2008 Tufts graduate Tony Caccavo says that the funding and support from Tisch was critical to the program's success. Even having the Civic Engagement Fund logo on their paperwork, he says, "added a whole level of credibility to what we were trying to do."

Civic Engagement Fund

Tony Caccavo with the Yonso Project.

"Had it not been for the funding from Tufts, the likelihood of the program working and being off the ground would be slim to none," says Caccavo, who is currently pursuing his master's degree in teaching from Tufts. "The reflection process really forced us to look at the program and say, 'we can make changes here, we need help with this.'"

The program was so successful, in fact, that it grew beyond the capacity of the small student group to manage it. Caccavo and his team have put the project on hold while they develop a more efficient way of managing it.

Szyman is particularly pleased to watch students like Caccavo learn from their experiences. And of Coplan and her Broadway2Broadway endeavor, she says, "What's been interesting is watching her development, balancing her responsibilities and stretching herself, but being successful nonetheless."

In the end, the initiative not only filled a school's need for a drama program that would complement their social studies lessons but also brought Tufts students into the school as mentors.

Szyman acknowledges that it is no small undertaking, but she sees a huge pay off.

"The students are working to meet that need in the way that a community needs it most," says Szyman. "The projects are phenomenal and they just take off."

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Photos by Alonso Nichols, University Photography. Yonso Project photo courtesy of Tony Caccavo.

This story originally ran on Apr. 6, 2009.