If you gave Cornell undergraduate students an opportunity to make a difference by funding their ideas, what would they do?
This is the question developmental psychologist Anthony Burrow is looking to answer with The Contribution Project, an initiative he developed to help 50 Cornell undergraduate students make meaningful contributions by granting them each $400.
Burrow’s inspiration for the project was three-fold. First, he won Cornell’s fourth annual Engaged Scholar Prize, which recognizes a faculty member’s innovative approach to community-engaged scholarship. Second, Burrow says he is always eager to find ways to showcase the positive qualities of young adults at Cornell. And, third, Burrow was excited by a journal article he read this summer about the importance of contribution in promoting youth development and how communities might benefit from these contributions.
“I started wondering how different our world would be if we actually invested in – and capitalized on – the contributions young people are willing to make,” Burrow said. “I found this mind boggling, and found the article intriguing and convincing.”
So, Burrow and his research team came up with The Contribution Project. They are accepting applications this fall from Cornell undergraduates with ideas about how to make a meaningful contribution in any way.
“Any contribution counts,” Burrow said. “Whatever a student feels is worth contributing to, we are willing to entertain it. We deem a contribution to the world more broadly just as potentially consequential as a contribution to oneself.”
Applications for the grants must meet four criteria: They must be reasonably feasible, thoughtful and clear, safe and put into action by the end of the calendar year. Burrow’s team enters all projects that meet these standards into a random-number generator and is funding whichever projects the computer program chooses.
Students submitted 60 applications in the first round, which ended October 4, and 15 received funding. There will be two more rounds with deadlines on October 11 and 18, and a total of 50 projects funded in all.
Projects awarded in the first round run the gamut of contributions, big and small.
One student plans to use the money to finish building and launch an app called “ReLearn” that will allow students to re-watch and search the content of university lectures.
Another will supply SAT prep books to an underfunded high school in south central Los Angeles.
A student who is an emergency medical technician in Ithaca will put together backpacks with toys and stuffed animals for children who need to ride in ambulances or visit the hospital.
And, serendipitously, one student wants to use the funds, along with donations and grants from other university organizations, to install lighting on the path from Ho Plaza to Collegetown to improve safety and beautify the campus. The week after the student submitted the application for this idea, two students were the victims of a nighttime, armed robbery in the exact location where the student hopes to install the lights.
“The robbery really underscores the timeliness of this idea,” Burrow said. “This idea is also notable because this student realizes they will not be able to accomplish this contribution in full with $400. They know they will need to work with student groups and other facilities to see it through. So, while aspirational, we do suspect the student stands to learn a great deal about leveraging multiple resources as they attempt to bring the idea to fruition.”
This particular project, Burrow explains, is a clear example of how the community will benefit from an idea while the student develops skills that will be useful in many future endeavors.
While The Contribution Project does dovetail with Burrow’s research on having an sense of purpose in life, he is careful to point out that it is not a research project.
“Students with good ideas are not being studied,” he said. “We have simply created a mechanism by which students can obtain funding to contribute in a way that makes sense to them. The ideas for studies might come later. But as for this project, I don’t want to be an investigator, just an investor.”
Thinking about all of the contributions that students will make is exciting to Burrow, but he does feel disappointed that he will not be able to fund all of them. “I just hope that for students who don’t receive funding, the opportunity to think through the idea while drafting the proposal will inspire them to find ways to pursue their contribution anyway,” he said. “Or maybe someone will decide that we should continue this project and fund a few good ideas every year. Good ideas do not seem to be in short supply here at Cornell. “