Campus News

Social Impact Fellows use diverse perspectives to create change

2022 Social Impact Fellows.

The Social Impact Fellows program brings together 30 UB graduate students to create social innovation in the community. Photo: Onion Studio


Published August 22, 2022

“Social work has to combine with business — that’s how we’re going to create successful programs and organizations. A lot of social workers come to school to do micro-level work, but this opportunity gave me a different perspective and showed me that I can work on the business side and use my social work perspective to contribute to a successful program. ”
Andy Whitehead, master's student
School of Social Work

A restorative justice program for survivors of domestic violence. A plan to reduce readmissions at one of the area’s busiest hospitals. A strategy to expand a mobile food market that combats food insecurity. A guidebook to help caregivers assist aging relatives.

These are just a few of the projects that UB’s Social Impact Fellows developed this summer alongside 10 local organizations. Their work, as the name of the fellowship promises, is already making an impact in the community — and is poised to do so for months and years to come.

Now in its fifth year, the Social Impact Fellows program brings together students from the School of Management, School of Social Work and College of Arts and Sciences to create social innovation in Western New York. Working in teams of three with one graduate student from each school, the fellows collaborate to research a problem facing a community organization. Then, they devise a solution and pitch their project in the hopes of winning funds for the organization to implement it.

This year’s Pitch for a Cause competition wrapped up the program on Aug. 5, as the fellows, UB community members and organization partners came together to hear more about their summer of impact.

“I applaud each of you for contributing to the greater good, and in so doing, embodying UB’s values,” President Satish K. Tripathi told the fellows at the event.

“Our fellows’ meaningful service is core to UB’s mission of excellence,” Tripathi continued, addressing the audience. “A true measure of the success of the Social Impact Fellows program is the impact our students make on community organizations. We know that many of our partners have integrated into their business practices the innovative solutions developed by our students.”

Making a difference

“I hate to be cliché, but I definitely signed up to make social impact in the Buffalo community,” MBA student Kennethea Wilson says of her decision to join the program.

With teammates Maria Rothaupt and Abhipsa Chakraborty — MSW and PhD in English students, respectively — Wilson interned with the South Buffalo Community Association. The team created and distributed a community needs assessment, and using that data, got to work creating a business plan for a food pantry and delivery service that would address residents’ greatest concerns: food insecurity and transportation.

Wilson says the program cemented her career goals of working for community organizations and being an advocate for change.

“After this experience, I feel affirmed in my career path — I am going to be a leader,” she says. “I know I will step into a leadership role having the training to know what it means to be a leader, how to manage a team setting and how to create a timeline and execute it.”

Alex Bakke, a PhD student in Spanish language and literature, also came away from the program with a newfound understanding of how his skillset could align with career opportunities. Bakke and his teammates, MSW student Kiara Owen and MBA student Michael Mankiewicz, worked with the nonprofit Open Buffalo on a business plan for an urban ecology center that would address environmental racism in East Buffalo.

At first, Bakke says it was a challenge to figure out how his background in linguistics and research fit in with such a project. But by collaborating with his teammates, he discovered how their skills and perspectives complemented one another and enhanced the final deliverable.

“It’s been an eye-opening experience for me,” Bakke says. “I learned how I can translate my skills into the private sector, nonprofits or to give back in my free time. All in all, having this experience just makes me more marketable.”

Presenting creative solutions

In addition to interning at their partner organizations, the fellows came together several times during the summer for sessions with management and social work faculty, and to visit mission-driven organizations throughout the region.

The entire program is built on the idea of social innovation — that to tackle society’s greatest challenges, organizations and individuals from many sectors must come together to find solutions.

“Social innovation is imperative for the next generation of leaders, particularly because you get an opportunity to address the complex challenges facing today’s society,” Ananth Iyer, dean of the School of Management, told the audience at the Pitch for a Cause competition.

Speaking directly to the fellows, Keith Alford, dean of the School of Social Work, agreed: “Social innovation and experiential learning are key initiatives of the university. Your interdisciplinary focus in solving the challenges of today through creative innovation is certainly outstanding and will be needed more than you can possibly imagine in years to come.”

In total, 10 teams of fellows delivered pitches representing the following organizations:

  • Big Brothers Big Sisters of Erie, Niagara and the Southern Tier.
  • Erie County Medical Center.
  • Family Justice Center of Erie County.
  • FeedMore WNY.
  • Learning Disabilities Association of Western New York/LEAD716.
  • Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center of WNY.
  • Omantec LLC.
  • Open Buffalo.
  • South Buffalo Community Association.
  • Victory Sports Global Outreach.

Presenting in random order, each team had five minutes to describe the problem they were addressing and their solution, followed by three minutes of rapid-fire questions from the judging panel.

This year’s judges were Esther Annan, program officer, John R. Oishei Foundation; David Femi, head of multicultural banking and diverse market strategy, M&T Bank; Dharshan Jayasinghe, UB Alumni Association president and CEO, bizWin Strategies and Triad Health Care Recruiting; and Rene Petties-Jones, president, National Federation for Just Communities of Western New York.

The team from ECMC — Alyssa Ruminski, MSW; Muhammad Ashraf, MBA; and Thaddeus Okon, PhD in linguistics — took second, collecting a $1,000 prize to help the medical center implement their project to lower readmission rates for complex care patients.

Finally, to thunderous applause, the winning team was named: Andy Whitehead, MSW; Elizabeth Ramirez, MBA/MSW; and Samantha King-Shaw, PhD in global gender studies, representing the Matt Urban Center. Throughout the summer, they created a curriculum, marketing materials, a recruitment guide and other tools for a workforce development program that teaches participants culinary skills and kitchen fundamentals, leading to certifications and employment opportunities.

Now, thanks to their victory and the $2,000 prize, the team’s idea for the Above Ground Culinary Arts Training program may eventually become a reality.

“Social work has to combine with business — that’s how we’re going to create successful programs and organizations,” Whitehead says. “A lot of social workers come to school to do micro-level work, but this opportunity gave me a different perspective and showed me that I can work on the business side and use my social work perspective to contribute to a successful program.”

The Social Impact Fellows program is made possible through the generous support of many partners, individuals and organizations, including Fred and Donna Saia; Steven H. Shepsman and Debra A. Shepsman; and Sujata Yalamanchili and R. Kent Roberts.