By CHARLES ANZALONE
Published August 4, 2023
For School of Management student Mark McCarthy, it was one of the most important elements of his academic life. “It was a real opportunity to take the skills I learned at UB and put them toward a cause greater than a paycheck,” he says.
Theatre and Dance master’s candidate Natasha McCandless’ dreams of teaching dance at a university included taking her knowledge as an artist and educator to populations beyond the classrooms. She found a way to do that, merging her creative and academic knowledge.
McCarthy and McCandless are looking to make a difference as Social Impact Fellows, participants in UB’s hands-on, community-impact program that brings MBA students from the School of Management, MSW students from the School of Social Work and graduate students from the College of Arts and Sciences together for a simple but profound cause: addressing pressing social issues in the Western New York community, and doing something to help.
The Social Impact Fellows form multidisciplinary teams that take part in a summer, weeklong foundation course and work with local mission-driven organizations. They spend Mondays through Thursdays for eight weeks at their host site, addressing social issues through their organization.
While there, the fellows learn about issues the organization tackles, meet with those working on or affected by these problems and develop solutions to address them. They gather Friday mornings with UB faculty members who coach them on identifying, defining and generating solutions for social challenges.
The summer culminates with the Pitch for a Cause competition, taking place this year on Aug. 4, during which fellows present their projects and compete for funding for their partner organizations to implement their ideas.
“I see the program as having two main goals,” says Michael Lynch, clinical associate professor, School of Social Work, who supervises the program. “One, to have a direct, positive social impact in the local community through the students’ work at their host sites. And two, provide graduate students with an interdisciplinary, real-world educational experience that will both train and inspire students to create social change.
“Each year, I think this program produces a cohort of students with the skills and motivation to create social change in their post-graduate careers.”
Judges for the pitch competition will be looking for innovative ideas that can have an immediate impact on the community the host site serves, Lynch says, noting that the judges “are looking for creativity, sustainability and a well-articulated plan.”
McCarthy, McCandless and social work student Olivia Judge are working with Gliding Stars, an organization that provides individuals with disabilities the opportunity to increase their personal potential through development of ice-skating skills using specialized adaptive equipment while practicing in their community.
Judge says Gliding Stars was her first choice of work sites.
“Not only does their work with individuals reflect my future work as a social worker, but it was simply such a unique opportunity to learn about an out-of-the-box program I had never heard of before,” says Judge.
The organization works with disabled children using adaptive equipment in ice skating programs from October to March, culminating in a large ice show at the end of the season. Its goal is to significantly increase an individual with disabilities’ self-esteem, their ability to work in a team and their social skills, according to Judge.
The three fellows organized Gliding Stars’ vast costume collection, revived its social media accounts, sorted and organized old photos, and helped upgrade the website. The team plans to center its pitch around helping the group improve its costume options in the future.
The students praise Gliding Stars mentors Cristie Mokhiber, executive director, and Miranda Fiore, program assistant.
“(Mokhiber and Fiore) have given me opportunities to express the ways that I believe I could be an asset to the GS team, and to hit the ground running with my ideas for a revitalization of their social media presence on both Facebook and Instagram,” Judge says.
“They have also given me creative freedom to propose ideas for social media campaigns and different post ideas that connect Gliding Stars to their community in fun ways to keep individuals engaged on social media.
“I know that Cristie’s and Miranda’s work at Gliding Stars is going to beautifully impact the lives of dozens of individuals in the community for many years to come,” she says.
“Being able to improve in all of these different areas helps to significantly increase one’s quality of life, which is one thing that all social workers — or aspiring social workers — want.”
McCandless says she was able to use her knowledge in “unique ways, specifically through tasks such as updating assessment methodology and providing game ideas for future lesson plans.”
“Additionally, my background in theatre and dance allowed me to facilitate brainstorming for potential future show themes, including details around music, costumes and storytelling elements,” she says.
“All these tasks work toward supporting the instructors’ and skaters’ experiences on ice in the coming season.”
McCarthy says he’s learned “not only patience, but a greater understanding for what is needed to succeed as a smaller organization like Gliding Stars.”
“I learned how interpersonal relationships really hold an organization like Gliding Stars together and to cherish those relationships,” he says.
“My mission going into this program was to help a charity where I believe I could truly make a positive change. I wanted to be able to walk out of that building at the end of the summer thinking, ‘I actually left this place a bit better than when I entered it.’
“Gliding Stars has trusted me to leverage my knowledge to help them with their tech problems, and I appreciate that,” McCarthy notes. “The work I’m doing for them now … is work I can draw directly to tangible good down the line.”