A dozen Mercer University students are preparing to pitch their bright ideas for changing the world, with hopes of receiving funding to put them into action. Mercer’s Quality Enhancement Plan/Research That Reaches Out office is hosting its annual Visionary Student Panel (VSP) event virtually at 6 p.m. March 9.
Earlier this semester, students submitted applications explaining their ideas for addressing real-life community problems and went through an interview process. Those selected received coaching from QEP Associate Director Hannah Nabi. On March 9, 12 students will give short pitches on seven projects to a “panel of non-judgy judges,” who will provide constructive feedback, Vann Nabi said.
This year’s panelists are Dr. Mary Alice Morgan, professor of English; Lauren Shinholster, coordinator of community engagement; Cameron Kunzelman, coordinator of Fellowships and Scholarships; Kristin Bailey, research services librarian; and Ben Dunn, director of the McEachern Arts Center. The students’ presentations will focus on the topics of homelessness, sexual health, implicit bias, fast fashion, food insecurity, college access and diverse voices in publishing.
“We always get a really good blend of students with different experiences,” Nabi said. “My favorite thing about VSP is it’s an opportunity for students who may not have a pathway through their courses to pursue some of their interests. It’s a very acceptive, inclusive program in that sense. That generates some interesting projects. It’s exciting to every year see students’ awareness of community.”
Following the presentations, students will move on to the second phase of the program: the funding application. Students will attend a grant workshop to work through their goals, outcomes, timelines and budgets, and then submit their applications. A committee determines which projects receive funding and how much they receive, and students will have the fall semester to implement their projects.
“Usually it’s in-person, and we have a big audience turnout,” Nabi said. “This year, we’re doing Zoom instead. I’m hoping students’ families will get to see them. We would love students, faculty and staff to attend. We will be allowing audience questions about feedback. We want students to get as much feedback as possible, so they can be well-prepared for applying for their funding.”
The VSP presentations normally happen in the fall, but the schedule for the mini-grant program was shifted to follow the 2021 calendar year instead of the August-May academic year. Nabi said the projects often require a lot of in-person, on-site work in the community, and she hopes it will be safer for students to interact with people in the fall.
Since the adjusted timeline includes the summer months, students will have more time to work out the final details of their projects and establish community partnerships.
The QEP office has built in additional support to help students implement their projects. Every year, a few projects don’t come to fruition, and these extra measures aim to keep that from happening. Nabi will check in with participants during the year and help them make connections with the other students working on VSP projects, so it’s more of a shared, cohort experience.
“We have on all of our banners ‘Everyone majors in changing the world.’ We all believe that, but that is also a very daunting task,” Nabi said. “Providing students a pathway to test that out and support to pursue that is a really important part of investing in our students. We are teaching them to be good citizens, strong leaders and how to make the world a better place.”
Students need to understand that even small efforts are important, and they don’t have to tackle enormous, show-stopping projects to make a difference, Nabi said. Through the VSP program, they establish a sense of pride and accomplishment and learn they have the power to influence their communities.