Professor Jefferson Singer edits special issue of Journal of Personality exploring the psychobiographies of change agents
When his documentary From a Valley in Talol made its premiere this past fall at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, Sam Simonds '19 could finally celebrate the most ambitious project he'd ever undertaken.
The documentary, filmed on location in Haiti, explores the untold stories of former "restaveks"—a term used to describe a system of child servitude in Haiti where parents send their children to work in a host household as a domestic servant, what many call a form of modern-day child slavery. The project was made possible by Simonds' participation in the Connecticut College Social Innovators program, a pilot program that identified promising incoming first-year students with strong records of public service, put them together in a first-year seminar, and offered grant funding for related internships or special projects the students could pursue during their time at Conn. The initiative was launched in 2015 thanks to generous support from Bill Barrack '81 P'18 and Tom Sargent '82 P'17. Eight of the participants are graduating in May.
After interning with filmmaker and activist Andre Robert Lee '93 the summer before his sophomore year, Simonds decided he wanted to use the money Conn provided to produce the documentary.
"The program exposed us to a transformational network of faculty, staff and students who all provided spaces for us to realize and act on our ambitions," Simonds said, adding that the Social Innovators program has been the most important component of his time at Conn.
As social innovators, students received a $5,000 grant to use toward internships, projects or research, in addition to $3,000 in internship funding all Connecticut College students are eligible for. Participants join a group of like-minded students enrolled in a first-year seminar, "Social Innovation: Making and Unmaking Worlds," taught by David Kim, chair of the religious studies department and professor of religious studies and American studies. The seminar also connects students with faculty mentors and offers preferred access to internship and scholarship opportunities in the College's five centers for interdisciplinary scholarship, as well as to Conn's nationally recognized career program.
"The Social Innovators program truly exceeded our expectations," said Dean of the College Jefferson Singer. "Forming that cohort in their first year allowed theses students to hit the ground running and unleash their innovative potential by developing prototypes, conducting research and gaining experiences that have yielded honor theses, original films, non-profit organizations and presentations at professional conferences."
Dorothy Wang, who serves as assistant director in the Office of Career and Professional Development and has been a career adviser to the Social Innovators program during the past four years, says her involvement in the program has been one of the most rewarding experiences of her 10-plus years at the College. 2015 was also the first year the College implemented its team advising approach, which assigns students multiple faculty and staff advisers to help them navigate their academic and career preparation paths.
"Watching these eight seniors succeed was proof that Conn students are ready from the moment they arrive on campus to affect their communities as leaders in such a diverse number of ways," Wang said. "They went on to write crucial and inspired spoken word poetry; they conceived, pursued and made important documentary films; and they started wonderful nonprofit organizations."
In May, Social Innovator Cheikh Gaye will graduate with a government and global Islamic studies double major and a minor in Arabic. Over the past four years, Gaye has been able to live and work abroad in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, and to intern with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a program that offers support services to more than five million Palestinian refugees.
"The program gave me a platform to discover myself and fulfill goals important to me and my professional development," said Gaye. "With the help of the program, new ideas and opportunities were opened for me to continue my activism and community service work."
Allie Girouard '19 and Kate Stockbridge '19 met during the program's first year seminar and became good friends and professional collaborators. Stockbridge is the founder of BOLD, a nonprofit that creates after school programs to teach media literacy and offer mentorship to empower girls to use their voices for positive change, and Girouard quickly joined the team as the director of operations.
Girouard and Stockbridge used their social innovation funding to expand the program, which was developed in response to extensive psychological and sociological research that shows a direct correlation between body image expectations popular media infuses in young girls and their confidence in taking on leadership roles in later years. The after school programs provide mentorship and guidance for girls navigating that media and social landscape so they can realize their full value. In 2017, they won a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant to expand the program to more schools in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
"The Social Innovators program was honestly the deciding factor in coming to Conn College," said Girouard. "I knew the $5,000 for internships and special projects would be invaluable because otherwise I would not be able to afford to take chances on unpaid internships and projects."
Wang believes that the program can continue to evolve and expand to provide even more career-building opportunities for students and serve as a model that would help further solidify the College as a premier leader of internship programs of liberal arts institutions.
But for now, she is excited to see what these students do next.
"Each of these students brought something innovative and impressive," Wang said. "Whether it was their curiosity, their dreams, their vision or their hope, they embraced their social innovation to guide them, and I have no doubt they're just getting started."
These eight seniors have spent the last four years making the most of the Social Innovators program. The extraordinary work they’ve done, supported by the College's funded internships, has laid a strong foundation of social change these students will continue to build on after they graduate in May.
Economics and east Asian studies double major, Posse scholar and aspiring diplomat, Brandy Darling has been building an impressive track record of social change since she first set foot on campus. Recently, she was selected as a 2019 Thomas R. Pickering Graduate Foreign Affairs Fellow. The Pickering Fellowship provides two years of financial support for graduate study as well as professional development and mentoring to prepare fellows for a career in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Jermaine Doris, an anthropology and Africana studies double major, has used the Social Innovators funding to write a book entitled Vineyard Blacklight: Interactions of Class, Race, and Existence on Martha’s Vineyard 2016-2017. A lover of the arts, he interned at the Kennedy Center and the organization Americans for the Arts, and hopes to continue using his creative talents to help advance marginalized individuals and cultures in America.
In May, Cheikh Gaye will graduate with a government and global Islamic studies double major and a minor in Arabic. The Social Innovators program has provided him with opportunities to live and work abroad in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, and to intern with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, a program that offers support services to more than five million Palestinian refugees.
Allie Girouard met fellow social innovator Kate Stockbridge during the program’s first year seminar, and the two used the funding to help found BOLD, a nonprofit that creates after school programs to teach media literacy and offer mentorship to empower girls to use their voices for positive change. Girouard, a sociology and American studies double major, says the Social Innovators program was a major factor in her decision to choose Conn.
A psychology major and economics minor, Sophia Mobayed used her Social Innovators grant to intern at Learn to Cope, a nonprofit that provides peer education and support for families of people struggling with addiction. She has been accepted into several top graduate schools, including Columbia University and NYU, and plans to pursue a career as a clinical social worker.
As a film studies major, Sam Simonds knew he wanted to make a film that highlighted the struggles of the Haitian people. With the help of the Social Innovators program, he was able to produce a documentary titled From a Valley in Talol, which was filmed on location in Haiti and explores the untold stories of former “restaveks”—a term used to describe a system of child servitude in Haiti where parents send their children to work in a host household as a domestic servant, considered by many to be a form of modern-day child slavery.
Kate Stockbridge is executive director of the non-profit BOLD, which she cofounded with her fellow social innovator Allie Girouard. A government and American studies double major with a passion for politics and public policy, Stockbridge hopes to continue expanding the reach and impact of BOLD after she graduates from Conn.
Martha Willey used her Social Innovators grant for a project that aligned perfectly with her major in American studies. She and a friend teamed up to produce a podcast that brought them all across America interviewing ordinary citizens who authentically reflected the social, political and economic views of their particular areas of the country.