How U-M Students are optiMizing Our World
By Jordan Andre Moore
If you could change something in the world, what would it be?
This is the question that ignited optiMize, a University of Michigan student-run organization that champions a just and sustainable world through social innovation projects. optiMize represents one of the largest pools of funding for early-stage student projects in the country, and since 2012, has grown to more than 3,000 participants.
Jeff Sorensen (AB ’12) and Tim Pituch (BS ’12) were months from graduating when they hit what could be called a quarter-life crisis.
“I didn’t know what meaningful work was going to be for me, or what direction I was going—I felt directionless,” Sorensen reflected. “Tim and I were in 16th grade, and we’d been through all this education, and we never had a formal space in our education to ask:
‘If you could do something because you care about it, what would you do? If you could change something in the world, what would you change?’
In search of answers, Sorensen and Pituch—along with their housemates, Angelle Kettlewell (AB ’14) and Michael Maiorano (AB ’13)—started meeting with student organizations across campus. They discovered that many organizations were siloed and lacked the resources and collaboration to create positive change. They wondered how they could bring these organizations together and empower an entrepreneurial group of student innovators. Their answer was optiMize.
“We had no idea what we were doing. We put out an application before we even knew what the program would be,” said Sorensen. “But people loved our idea and applied, and we realized we had to build a program.”
Before long, optiMize teamed up with United Way and a number of units across campus. A year later, the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) brought the program under its wing and hired Sorensen as director. optiMize has been a part of LSA ever since.
How optiMize works
optiMize is an on-campus community for innovators. Most students join the organization via its Social Innovation Challenge: a 6-month, co-curricular project incubator that includes collaboration events, mentorship, and skill-building workshops.
“One of the hardest things about starting your own project is feeling isolated,” Sorensen said. “It’s a Friday night and you want to start working on your project but you don’t have the energy for it. optiMize is a place you can go and be around others who are also working on projects.”
In the fall, students apply to the Challenge with a project idea they want to develop over the course of the year. In the spring, they pitch their project to the Summer Fellowship program for the chance to receive up to $20,000 in project funding.
At the start of her sophomore year, Grace Coudal (STAMPS Class of 2021) was planning to transfer. She was passionate about art and design but didn’t feel like she belonged at Michigan. Then she found optiMize.
“Without the community and dedication of the optiMize team and the opportunity to pursue a dream of mine and my partners, I would have never stayed in Ann Arbor,” Coudal said.
“optiMize gave me a reason to stay here, and a reason to love Michigan. I am forever grateful for what the Social Innovation Challenge has provided to my life and the community it has given to me.”
Coudal became a 2019 Summer Fellow and, with Lal Cakmur (STAMPS Class of 2021), launched STAA COLLECTIVE, an activist art group that uses art as a means to explore intimacy, identity, and individuality.
Evelyn Reyes (LSA Class of 2022) found herself in a similar position. As a freshman and first-generation student, she wanted to get involved on campus but wasn’t sure where to begin or where she fit in. Then Reyes heard about optiMize and the opportunity for a summer fellowship, and her creative wheels started turning. With Aissa Cabrales (LSA Class of 2022), Reyes launched Mi Casa Es Tu Casa, a central California outreach program that helps families with limited opportunities learn about their post-secondary options through online and in-person resources.
“The most important thing I learned was understanding, and not undermining, the power we hold as individuals to make a change in our community,” Reyes said. “Yes, some of us may be young (and look even younger) and sometimes getting older adults to take us seriously can seem like a daunting task, but I learned that we are just as capable of being leaders and bring an important perspective to the table.”
While students like Grace and Evelyn join optiMize to launch a project, many students don’t have their own project ideas and join the optiMize community to support others’ work.
Zoya Gurm (LSA Class of 2020) has been a part of optiMize since her freshman year, where she has worn a number of hats on optiMize’s organizing team.
“I’m constantly inspired by the students I meet working on projects through the Social Innovation Challenge,” Gurm said. “I haven’t been able to find another community on campus like optiMize. It truly believes in student leadership—at every level, I’ve been empowered to be a leader, take initiative, and have my voice heard.”
optiMize goes beyond traditional education by offering hands-on and grade-free learning opportunities. It gives students agency in their education and provides spaces for them to fail without long-term consequences.
“I love that optiMize allows students to explore, grow, and discover while they make a difference in the world,” said Anne Curzan, Dean of LSA, Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature, Linguistics, and Education, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor.
“It has the power to connect what students learn inside the classroom with their passion for changing the world, and it can provide entirely new learning opportunities and resources beyond the classroom and beyond the university.”
optiMize’s emphasis on student learning and development distinguishes it from other entrepreneurial programs. “optiMize projects are vehicles for students to grow and develop their skills to change the world,” Sorensen said. “Projects that come out of optiMize that end up being sustainably successful are a by-product of investing in the student.”
At the same time, optiMize has funded an incredible number of sustainable long-term projects. Blueprints for Pangea (B4P), for example, was a part of optiMize’s second Summer Fellowship cohort in 2014. Today, B4P has a global impact as a sustainable nonprofit, reallocating unused medical supplies from areas of excess to areas in need.
Universities around the country, including the likes of Harvard and UCLA, are showing interest in optiMize’s model. Closer to home, Eastern Michigan University and Wayne State University have already implemented optiMize on their campuses. The student-run organization is also teaming up with Washtenaw Community College and nonprofit partners like United Way to bring social innovation to local communities across Southeast Michigan.
Donor support has been integral for fueling students’ creativity on campus. While U-M supports optiMize’s operations (i.e. the staff and the programs), support for students to pursue their social impact projects is entirely funded by donors.
“Our slogan is ‘Why not me?’ And we tell our donors that in order to keep this spirit of belief alive, we need to make sure we have a funding pool that’s large enough to track with the ingenuity of our students,” Sorensen said.
Navid Mahmoodzadegan (AB ’90) and Joanne Gappy (UM-Dearborn ’93) are strong advocates for the program. When Mahmoodzadegan was an LSA student, he didn’t have the entrepreneurial resources that optiMize offers U-M students today.
“As someone who created a life around entrepreneurship, I’m compelled by the opportunity to foster an entrepreneurial hub in LSA,” Mahmoodzadegan said. “The more we can support students to pursue their entrepreneurial passions, the more value we add to Michigan, and ultimately, the better our society will be.”
U-M donors’ generosity has helped fuel optiMize’s impact. This past Giving Blueday, optiMize was the #1 fundraising department at the University of Michigan. Over the last seven years, the student-run organization has incubated more than 1,000 social impact projects and awarded over $1 million in seed funding.
Organizations like optiMize empower students to change the world. Imagine what our world could be if we all asked ourselves, “Why not me?”