Resourcefulness and determination are the Penn way.
By Amy Gutmann | Visitors entering Penn’s campus from Spruce Street, to the left of Houston Hall, may sometimes miss it, but there is a special connector opening the way to Locust Walk. The Class of 1893 Memorial Gate, framed by two urn-topped columns of brick and limestone, offers a welcoming portal leading straight to the heart of campus. Its iron arch bears the motto, Inveniemus viam aut faciemus—“We will find a way or we shall make one.”
Gates, when closed, forbid and bar the way. When open, as this gate on campus always is, they become passages leading to new relationships and possibilities. And yet, its motto poses a challenge, too. How do you find or make a way? It is, in a sense, the essence of what we teach here at Penn.
No better recent example of Penn opening the gates of opportunity comes to mind than our inaugural President’s Engagement Prize (PEP) winners. After completing a full year of their Prize-winning projects for local, national, and global social good, they have reported on their experiences, their partnerships, and how they navigated the challenges that invariably come with any ambitious and complicated undertaking.
When I first met the PEP winners in the spring of their senior year, each talked with me at length about what they aimed to achieve. I was deeply impressed by their passion and inspiring ideas: Shadrack Frimpong C’15 told me of how his mother was a major factor in his vision for a community clinic and school for girls in his home village in Ghana. I couldn’t help but share Katlyn Grasso W’15’s contagious enthusiasm for empowering young girls nationwide and introducing them to women leaders. Matt Lisle EAS’15 and Adrian Lievano EAS’15 walked me through the steps, both engineering and logistical, that would bring clean, sustainable water filtration systems to remote areas that need them most. And Jodi Feinberg Nu’15 opened my eyes to the lapses in care for cardiac patients after they are discharged from the hospital, and her plan for bridging that gap to ensure better recovery outcomes for thousands.
As impressive as this passion to make a difference was, it was how the Prize winners immediately set about translating their visions into action that truly stood out. These were students who saw an opportunity to make a difference and took hold of it with both hands, without delay. “While I knew my nursing career would bestow the opportunity to help the patients that I care for, the President’s Engagement Prize has allowed me to impact patients and clinicians nationwide,” is how Jodi Feinberg described her motivation. Now, a year later, with final reports written and the next phase in life beginning, all five prize winners agree that while planning is important, resilience and determination were what mattered most. Two essential ingredients that our prize winners discovered and will pass on to others: Creative Grit and Creative Collaboration. Reported Katlyn Grasso, who could have been speaking for all her fellow prize winners: “I learned how to be flexible and adapt quickly to challenges.”
The success enjoyed by each of our Engagement Prize-winners stems directly from that ability to adapt to changed circumstances. When Shadrack Frimpong returned to his home village with plans and funds for a new school and community center in hand, he thought construction could begin right away. Then he discovered that the owners of the 50-acre parcel of land designated for the project had not been consulted and were unwilling to allow construction to proceed. “I remember vividly how I wanted to give up on the project then,” he recalls. Instead, by bringing landowners and village elders together, a deal was struck: the land would be donated in exchange for free education for two girls from the owners’ extended family every year for the next ten years. “Obstacles are inevitable,” reports Shadrack, who advises future PEP winners that building partnerships and alliances is key to overcoming them.
Matthew Lisle and Adrian Lievano’s challenges were even greater still as they so succinctly described mid-way through their project year: “No more NGO partner, no location to make the water system, no backup plans.” Starting all over, they returned to their original research and found a need—and opportunity—to design, manufacture, and sell an affordable, household-sized, easy-to-use water filter that removes lead, chemicals, and harmful bacteria for home use. By the close of their project year, they had raised capital, signed contracts, and were working to deliver filters in emerging markets. “We have succeeded,” they write, “in making lemonade from lemons.”
For Katlyn Grasso, the challenges she faced came from an opposite, though equally unexpected, direction: too much success. Originally planning to host 12 events empowering young girls across the United States, the docket quickly grew to 19. Instead of 15,000 participants, she found need to accommodate 65,000. Her project website designed to welcome 50,000 visits a month instead has been receiving over half a million. “Going into this process, I think it’s important to realize that your plans may change,” she advises. “Embrace the uncertainty and be open to the unlimited possibilities!”
In her project designed to implement and evaluate a comprehensive cardiac rehabilitation model for home care, Jodi Feinberg occasionally found herself overwhelmed and unsure how to proceed. “PEP is a large responsibility for a new graduate to embark upon, so it’s crucial to collaborate,” she observes, noting that by their nature these efforts attract “autonomous and strong-willed students; a successful recipient must also have the confidence to seek guidance.” Her success—and the success of every one of the inaugural Engagement Prize recipients—owed much to being willing to reach out and find help in the larger community. True success, these stories remind us, so often is not achieved alone.
Initially, they inspired me with their visionary projects. Then, they surpassed my highest expectations with their strong progress. Now, listening to their own insights, what I find most impressive and truly edifying is how each of our Prize winners worked—creatively, collaboratively, and with determination—to overcome unexpected obstacles. Confronted by gates barring their path, they did not retreat, but in true Penn fashion persevered and opened those gates wide. Many people will follow them through to enjoy better lives filled with greater opportunity and prosperity. Most exciting of all, these remarkable stories are just the beginning. The President’s Engagement Prize—now joined by the President’s Innovation Prize—have a whole new set of remarkable new Penn graduates who are even now putting their knowledge and enthusiasm and creative grit to work for the betterment of humanity. I confidently expect succeeding generations of students to reach new heights, inspired by what has been done before them and building upon the lessons that previous winners and their Penn faculty mentors have to offer.
Remarkable Penn alumni such as our Presidential Engagement Prize winners continue to open new paths for themselves and others, proving that the motto atop the Class of 1893 Memorial Gate holds true wherever the Red and Blue go. Penn people improve the world by finding a way or making one.