New Penn award aims to inspire students to improve the world

University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann wants students graduating from her school to improve the world.

That’s why, starting this year, three graduating seniors will be awarded a $150,000 prize to carry out their project proposal for a local, national or global civic engagement plan.

Though there is no stipulation to stay in the area, Gutmann said that more than half of her students are already civically engaged locally and would stay in Philadelphia if they could find productive work.

“The students who win these prizes can earn a good living for the year after their graduation,” said Gutmann. “They can also get a stipend to inject that money into some innovative and important civic project in the area.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The money will come from donors, or a discretionary fund raised by the president as part of the Penn Compact 2020 plan that lays out the schools priorities, one of which is civil engagement.

After a positive initial reception of the plan, Gutmann doesn’t foresee a problem raising money in the future.

“The very first day this was announced, just among our small group of trustees, we had two trustee families who wanted to fund it,” said Gutmann. “The trustees enthusiastically embraced it. I’ve only had the opportunity to talk to a few students but they were enthusiastic too.”

Megan McCarthy-Alfano, a recent Penn graduate, is not eligible for the award, but she thinks it’s a great idea. She said that while the university has offered stipend-funded opportunities through nonprofit work before, it’s never been an award of this magnitude.

“While the majority of Penn students are interested in civic engagement, I think that many of us believe that we have to postpone grand-scale initiatives until later in our careers,” said McCarthy-Alfano via email. “Through the prize money, President Gutmann is telling students that they do not have to delay making a positive impact on the world.”

The prize is the first of its kind in the United States.

“It’s great that a Philadelphia school is a path breaker and is leading the way for other universities to think about things like this too,” said Deborah Diamond, president of Campus Philly, a nonprofit with the goal of getting college students to stay in the area after graduation.

“Philadelphia’s a great laboratory for social innovation, and students who are here at Penn learn the city while they’re here,” added Diamond. “I think we are a great city to consider when they’re thinking about the social innovation and the work they want to do with the prize.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal