Year of Engagement awards funding to proposals, hosts social media challenge


Photo courtesy of Johanna Siegel

Johanna Siegel, a senior bioengineering major, won an individual award and one with her sorority, Phi Sigma Rho, for the one of the Year of Engagement’s 14-day social media challenges.

By Colm Slevin, Staff Writer

Last year’s “Year of Creativity” involved supporting dynamic art projects such as the flash mob at the Cathedral of Learning. But with this year’s “Year of Engagement” lacking the ability to engage in person with the Pitt community, project members had to get creative with their initiatives.

The Year of Engagement is this year’s edition of Pitt’s “Year of” series, headed by the Provost’s office. This year’s theme aims to “confront the world’s biggest challenges and mobilize towards a better, more equitable and just society for all,” according to Kathy Humphrey, the senior vice chancellor for engagement.

The Year of Engagement steering committee helps make this happen. The committee, which consists of 28 members from across the University community, provides funding to projects it thinks will help strengthen the connections between people and create a more engaged Pitt. More than $22,000 in grants have been distributed to nine different projects so far, all of which have plans for new engagement initiatives for the University.

Each of the grant winners are members of the Pitt community, ranging from a librarian to a theater arts professor. Jorge Jimenez, a pre-doctoral fellow in the bioengineering department, is one of the individuals who received funding for a proposal. Jimenez said during a recent event about projects related to the year that he plans to teach computer engineering to Latinx communities to help kids learn how to design using computer software.

“I partnered with people who I met from the ‘Disrespecting The Border’ mural,” Jimenez said. “To come up with how to take engineering and art and community engagement through the lens of public health experts. To work together to teach kids to design using engineering software … We are going to host three virtual workshops that teach the cultural impact of technology in Latin America.”

Lynn Kawaratani, the engagement manager at the University Center for International Studies, proposed a project focused on making murals throughout Pittsburgh. Kawaratani said during a recent event about projects related to the year that she finds it interesting that the Year of Engagement coincided with the pandemic.

“It’s surprising that the year of engagement is this year,” Kawaratani said. “It’s almost like all these pieces are coming together. As terrible as this year has been, there’s all these opportunities we can seize upon in this crisis.”

Cedric Humphrey, the Student Government Board executive vice president, said when he and fellow SGB member Kathryn Fleisher were coming up with the theme of the year, they weren’t expecting or thinking about a global pandemic. Instead, he said they picked this year because it is an election year.

“There was no way that we could’ve known that COVID-19 would impact our year back when we started planning, but we knew it would be a busy year with the presidential election and the census, and now with the renewed social justice movement,” Humphrey said. “We know that a lot of engagement work is already happening at Pitt, but now, we want to put a spotlight on it.”

The Year of Engagement recently hosted two “virtual coffee” events to honor the nine grant recipients and to give them each the opportunity to discuss their projects with the Pitt community.

In addition to the coffee events, the committee also organized a 14-day social media campaign in the beginning of the semester. The campaign challenged students to respond to daily prompts on Twitter using the #PittEngage hashtag. Some prompts asked participants to answer questions about Pittsburgh-themed topics, take the Harvard implicit bias test and share an act of kindness they did that day.

Whoever’s tweet received the most likes would be the winner of the day’s challenge. Winners were given a choice between receiving Pitt gear or donating that money to youth programs at the University’s Community Engagement Centers in the Hill District and Homewood.

Steven Abramowitch, a committee member and bioengineering professor, said the vast majority of winners chose to donate the funds — more than $3,000 in all. He said the social media challenge reached 23 different “units” — responsibility centers, academic departments, student organizations — around Pitt, more than any other campaign has.

Johanna Siegel, a senior bioengineering major, won an individual award and one with her sorority, Phi Sigma Rho. Siegel said she got involved in the social media challenge along with her sorority to raise money for her sorority’s philanthropic work.

“This is my first year [taking part in these events], and I mostly decided to do it to benefit Phi Rho,” Siegel said. “We voted as an organization to donate the money, which I thought was really nice.”

Siegel said she found out about the year of engagement through an email from Abramowitch, her academic adviser.

“He was getting the word out,” Siegel said. “I was like, whoa, this is really cool because if you win, you can earn money for your organization that you can then choose to use for your organization or donate.”

According to Abramowitch, the Year of Engagement team wants to highlight those who are doing good around Pittsburgh and campus.

“We had relatively good participation in [the social media challenge],” Abramowitch said. “And overall, I thought, given the pandemic and everything and the inability for us to meet in person.”

Abramowitch said he has been seeing a lot of anxiety this year with the COVID-19 pandemic and wants to try to use the Year of Engagement to alleviate some of the stress that students have been facing by putting out positive messages of what people around the community have been doing in their fields and for the Pitt community.

“There’s just been a lot of frustration, anxiety and stress going on,” Abramowitch said. “And so what we want to do is we want to start focusing on positive messages and really provide examples of student organizations and other departments around Pitt who are just doing outstanding engagement and really highlighting those efforts.”

Abramowitch said he finds it hard to plan events this year since they are all virtual and he sees a lot of burnout from students from doing all their classes online. But he said the team this year has been working hard to plan events that will get the Pitt community engaged.

“I think a lot of the time when people think of engagement, they think of in-person types of events and activities,” Abramowitch said. “And certainly we’ve not been able to do really any of those. So we’ve really had to modify what it means to be engaged and how to engage and how to get people enthusiastic about engaging.”