The Stevens Initiative, in collaboration with World Learning, announced the first cohort of Stevens Initiative Alumni Small Grants recipients in January 2020, supporting six projects led by alumni of The Experiment Digital. The Experiment Digital is a two-month summer virtual exchange program that helps high school-aged youth become more civically engaged by learning to plan and implement a community service project. Over the past year, the first cohort of alumni grantees included six alumni projects in the United States, Algeria, Iraq, and Yemen, and each unique project addressed a specific need in that alumnus or alumna’s community.
As the world experienced global challenges with the coronavirus pandemic, these six grant recipients remained committed to bringing social change to their communities. With the obstacles that lay ahead, the small grant recipients needed to adapt their project timelines, workplans, and budgets to reflect the reality of the pandemic. “Flexibility is the main thing I’ve learned during my small grants project,” said Celine, project lead of Go STEAMers!. “I had to learn how to stick with my plans when I needed to and to change them whenever something unexpected came up.” Despite an unprecedented year, small grant recipients demonstrated resilience, adaptability, and a determination to address a critical need in their community.
Hiba Akbi (Algeria)
- Project Title: Keep Motivated
- Project Description: Working with two programmers, Hiba developed an application that motivates young people in her community to develop an interest in reading and literature.
- Project Outcomes: Hiba’s app, Cosmos, will become available for download in February 2021 for young people in Algeria and around the world.
Maged Alawadhi (Yemen)
- Project Title: Being Inspired to Make a Difference
- Project Description: Working with five fellow Experiment Digital alumni, Maged developed an entrepreneurship program that provides training and support to women in his community. In this program, seven trainees developed their sewing, marketing, and professional skills, creating a path to start their own small businesses.
- Project Outcomes: As a culmination of their training, the trainees designed and sewed dresses to present to the community. Since implementing the workshops, Maged has observed that the trainees have become more self-dependent and motivated to help other women in their community.
Nayantara Arora (USA)
- Project Title: Speak Up/Speak Out Podcast
- Project Description: The Speak Up/Speak Out podcast series shared the personal stories of immigrant and refugee youth in Portland to foster cross-cultural connections and empathetic exchange.
- Project Outcomes: The podcast released five episodes in its first season and plans to release an additional five episodes in a second season this year. In addition to releasing the podcast, Nayantara and her team have gained technical skills in audio-engineering and podcast-production that will sustain their project far into the future.
Celine Bendekoum (Algeria)
- Project Title: Go STEAMers!
- Project Description: Motivated to ensure young people in her community have the skills to engage in today’s technological world, Celine created Go STEAMers!, an after-school workshop that focuses on developing STEAM competencies, encouraging teamwork, and advancing leadership skills.
- Project Outcomes: When schools closed due to the global pandemic, Celine quickly transitioned Go STEAMers! to reach 50+ youth ages six to 17 at a local orphanage. Since implementing the workshops, Celine has observed that the student groups have grown in their STEAM knowledge and have developed a greater passion for the field.
Ashley Lin (USA)
- Project Title: Project Exchange
- Project Description: Ashley’s project, Digital Exchange Program Text, developed a text-based exchange to increase access to cross-cultural learning experiences for middle and high school students around the globe.
- Project Outcomes: Ashley and her Digital Exchange Program team implemented six cohorts of the text-based program, reaching 120+ participants from around the world.
Zhulia O. (Iraq)
- Project Title: Stop Signs to Prevent Accidents
Project Description: Responding to a recent rise in traffic accidents in her local community, Zhulia worked with the municipal government and a fellow Experiment Digital alumnus to identify intersections that lacked stop signs, installed new signs, and shared a campaign to increase knowledge on road safety.
- Project Outcomes: Zhulia and her team constructed the stop signs at key points throughout her community and began monitoring their effectiveness. Since implementing the stop signs, Zhulia has observed that members of her community are more aware of road safety and the municipal government is now able to better identify the drivers responsible for accidents.
Through the small grants, alumni used the skills developed during their virtual exchange to transform their communities with their projects. Both Maged and Celine observed that their participants and other youth who volunteered with their projects felt inspired to make their own change and give back to their communities. “Although the grant is over, the project is not going to be over,” said Maged. “We hope to train other trainees in the future. But if this doesn’t happen, we know the trainees will continue training themselves and training their relatives, friends, and others.” Maged’s reflections show the long-lasting impact of the project.
The alumni small grantees also further developed their own leadership skills. “Through my project, I was able to discover that I am becoming more confident in myself and my ability to communicate in professional settings,” said Zhulia. “Sometimes you think, ‘how is this little thing going to cause a big change?’ I learned to be confident in the project you are working on because even the smallest of steps can have the greatest results!”
Overall, a strong passion for community is at the center of these projects. “One of the key lessons our team has learned is the importance of running heart-centered programs,” said Ashley of her text-based exchange program. “Especially during a time of COVID-19, online schooling, and so many other issues in the world, it was important for us to be responsive to what students were experiencing, while acknowledging emotions and holding space for students to discuss whatever they felt meaningful.”
Promotional video for Project Exchange, The Experiment Digital Alumni Small Grants recipient Ashley’s project.
Although the first cohort of alumni small grants has concluded, the alumni grantees look forward to growing their projects in the future. With other alumni and volunteers interested in contributing to their projects, Maged hopes to empower more women in Yemen through his entrepreneurship and sewing training while Celine aims to expand her STEAM workshops into more orphanages in regions outside of Algiers.
Having secured additional funding, Nayantara and Ashley will scale their projects to address new social issues in their communities. Nayantara and her team have been selected as a recipient for the second cohort of the alumni small grants to grow her podcast series to explore ongoing racial injustice and elevate the stories of Black and BIPOC individuals. Ashley has been awarded additional funding from National Geographic to develop a thematic virtual exchange program based on the sustainable development goals.
With her team of developers, Hiba hopes to launch her app in February 2021 and will monitor its function over the next few months. Since installing the stop signs, Zhulia has continued to examine their impact through analyzing traffic incident data. If proven to increase public knowledge of road safety and reduce the amount of car accidents, she hopes to expand her project to other areas in her community.
As we enter a new year, the Stevens Initiative and World Learning look forward to announcing the second cohort of alumni small grantees, who will implement projects from February to October 2021.