Dallas McGhee-Henry admits transferring to U-M in the 2019-2020 academic year was not easy. All of his friends had gone to different universities and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it put a pause to all in-person learning and socializing. Like many students, McGhee-Henry found the solitariness and social and political unrest taxing. He felt increasingly isolated—until he found optiMize.

Founded in 2012, optiMize offers students the chance to hone their entrepreneurial skills while cultivating their interests in social impact. Through a unique co-leadership model where all programs are run in collaboration between emerging student leaders and full-time professional staff, optiMize provides students support for social innovation through co-curricular programs, courses, fellowships, funding, and mentorship opportunities.

With support from LSA and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, optiMize launched a Community Partnerships initiative, which provides community college transfer students a number of ways to showcase and support their social innovation work—before and after they transfer. Programs include the moMentum Fellowship for pre-transfer community college students, the Transfer Bridge Fellowship for U-M transfer student leaders, and aMplify programs to provide a support group for transfer students at U-M. In addition to these transfer-specific programs, optiMize also encourages these students to develop their own self-determined projects in its Social Innovation Challenge.

“I got an email from optiMize, saying they were looking for students to apply for their Transfer Bridge Fellowship. I wanted to check it out, so I applied and within a few weeks, I was a Transfer Bridge Fellow,” says McGhee-Henry, a fourth-year undergraduate majoring in Film, Television, and Media (FTVM). 

Transfer Bridge Fellows take on leadership roles in optiMize, working to create and cultivate a supportive community for their transfer student peers, recruiting prospective transfer students, and helping them acclimate to U-M and campus life. “I made some of my first U-M connections through optiMize,” McGhee-Henry says. “The conversations we’ve had have been great, even though I’ve never met anyone in person [due to the pandemic].”

After completing optiMize’s Social Innovation Challenge, McGhee-Henry made a successful pitch that earned him $7,000 and an optiMize Summer Fellowship. That support enabled him to spend the summer further developing his project, Funding for Foster Youth, which provides support for foster care youth once they age out of the system. He launched the project in October 2020 and hopes to continue his commitment to social work after he graduates this December.

McGhee-Henry never questioned the value of the Funding for Foster Youth work, but he didn’t initially connect it to his studies. “This is so opposite from my major, but I know the work that I’m doing in foster care is not done,” says McGhee-Henry. “Since film [FTVM] is my major, we talked about doing a documentary on this topic. I think it’s a great idea.”

And that is just one project to emerge from optiMize.

The Social Innovation Challenge, optiMize’s flagship program, is a five-month incubator where students receive funding to develop self-directed projects that will have a positive impact in the local and/or global community. In 2020 alone, 859 students participated in the program, and after five months of project development, optiMize awarded $350,000 for 37 student projects to join its Summer Fellowship

It was through a grant from the Summer Fellowship that another transfer student, Keirra Scott (B.G.S., ‘21), was able to fund her project, My Vote, My Voice, My Future, and raise awareness about voting during the 2020 election. She has since turned her project into a nonprofit, United Detroit.

“With the grant money they gave [me], I was able to host a community picnic, print and give away United Detroit t-shirts, and do phone banking,” Scott says. “It was challenging because of the COVID-19 pandemic, while also juggling being a mom and a full-time student, but I helped increase voter turnout in Wayne County by 1.2 percent. We all have greatness inside of us, and sometimes we just need people to help us figure out our purpose. optiMize empowers students by providing them with resources necessary so that they can be self-sufficient.”

Nesreen Ezzeddine, (A.B., ‘21), also a Transfer Bridge Fellow who transferred to U-M as a sophomore, agrees. optiMize funded her project, Michigan Democracy Institute for Civic Engagement (MDICE), which she launched as a community college student. MDICE is designed to get more college students involved in civic engagement, and has more than 300 student participants from universities in the Detroit-metro area, including U-M, U-M Dearborn, Wayne State University, and Oakland University.

“optiMize was one of the main core aspects of why I transferred to Michigan and a huge part of my experience,” says Ezzeddine. “We [MDICE] recently became a nonprofit, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the community and support I found in optiMize. I was able to find my voice, develop my skills, and make an impact in my community because they believed in my project from the beginning.”

The commitment to amplify student voices, and especially students from underrepresented groups at U-M, brings a subtle, yet visible uniqueness to optiMize. Currently, 60 percent of optiMize students identify as Black, Indigenous or other Persons of Color (BIPOC), more than 50 percent are women or nonbinary, and 33 percent are community college transfers or prospective transfers.

For Katie Avila, optiMize’s Community Partnerships Manager, creating a space for students, especially those from underrepresented communities, to create and foster social impact projects is valuable in more ways than one.

“Because students are genuine leaders in all our programs, it gives students like Nesreen, Keirra and Dallas the opportunity to be in the driver’s seat. That level of autonomy is something you’re not going to get elsewhere,” says Avila. “The value of our programming goes up when we invest in these students. Quality and equity are not in conflict with each other. They can cultivate, create and innovate.”