Why optiMize? Hear from Previous Fellows.

Why optiMize? Reflections with Cohort 7 Fellows

As we recruit students and projects for the 8th Social Innovation Challenge, we asked Cohort 7 Fellows about what they gained from participating in optiMize. We hope that their stories and projects inspire you to ask yourself, Why not me?

Hear from Madelynn, Evelyn, Jackson, Grace, Aissa, and Cristian.


Madelynn Carter, The Five North Project

Madelynn is a senior at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and spent her past summer as working on The Five North Project as an optiMize Fellow. The Five North Project serves vulnerable communities and schools by providing technology and educational resources. This year, Madelynn is a peer advisor on the optiMize team. 

Learn more about The Five North Project on their website or Instagram

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At the end of my sophomore year, I was starting to feel like my classes and extracurricular activities were unfulfilling and repetitive. I expressed this to a friend, and discovered that he was feeling similarly. We began discussing ways we could make our time in undergrad more meaningful, and The Five North Project was born. As I started to work on our ideas and develop the non-profit, I found myself re-discovering excitement for the work that I was doing. When I found out about optiMize at the beginning of my junior year, it came at the perfect time. I was excited about the work I was putting into Five North and the prospects of making a difference in people’s lives and had started to find ways to incorporate my classwork into the work I was doing. Meanwhile, I started to attend optiMize workshops and was able to envision how I could use my education and university resources to benefit our project.

optiMize was helping me learn entrepreneurial and real-life skills that complimented the theoretical topics I covered in many of my classes. As a summer fellow, I was able to extend my learning further by working on my project full-time over the summer. I truly believe that the experiences I gained from working on The Five North Project are just as valuable as my diploma will be after graduating. If it weren’t for optiMize, our project wouldn’t have gotten off the ground, and I wouldn’t have gained these skills. 

The optiMize community also provided me with opportunities to connect with a community of students that understand what it’s like to work on a start-up project. Since joining optiMize I’ve been introduced to a very diverse and motivated student group, and in turn I’ve made many more cross-campus connections and have learned about industries and issues that weren’t covered by major. Starting a non-profit was often felt too complicated for myself and my two partners to handle, but the encouragement we received from optiMize kept us moving. Our project had many moving parts and I was learning how to handle logistics, non-profit management, fundraising, and much more, and optiMize helped connect us with other students, faculty, and mentors to give us guidance. 

I’ll be leaving Michigan with more confidence, a greater skill-set, and broader knowledge of social impact and social justice because of optiMize.


Evelyn Reyes, Mi Casa Es Tu Casa

Evelyn is a sophomore who worked on the project Mi Casa Es Tu Casa. Mi Casa Es Tu Casa is an outreach program in central California that helps families with limited resources learn about their post-secondary options through online and in-person resources. Evelyn is now a peer-advisor in the optiMize Leadership Group. 

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“Take advantage of all the unique resources Michigan has to offer” I was repeatedly reminded throughout my freshman year in college. As a first-generation student I was unsure of what people meant by this. What unique resources? It wasn’t until I heard about optiMize and became involved in the Social Innovation Challenge that I realized this is it. optiMize is exactly the kind of unique opportunity they were talking about. I would have never imagined getting funded for something that was simply an idea at the time. I was continuously overwhelmed by all the support and feedback our team of 2 would receive at mentor check-in’s and monthly meetings. There were moments when I almost decided to drop midway throughout challenge, but I was reminded that I was important and the work that our team was doing was going to make a real-life impact.

The summer fellowship with optiMize allowed me to take an idea on paper and execute it. 

As a low-income student, working on a passion fueled project seemed unreasonable until I learned about the PAID summer fellowship which allowed me to be fully invested into the project this summer without having to worry about my financial situation. 

I would encourage everyone and anyone to participate in optiMize because it truly is a life changing experience. It taught me how to advocate for myself and be independent, but also how to work with and manage a team. I realized that it’s okay to not know how to do everything because you can always count on the supportive community here to help you connect with someone who can help you. The most important thing I learned was understanding, and not undermining, the power we hold as individuals to make a change in our community. Yes, some of us may be young (and look even younger) and sometimes getting older adults to take us seriously can seem like a daunting task, but I learned that we are just as capable of being leaders and bring an important perspective to the table. 

optiMize put me in a position where I was able to give back to my community in an unimaginable way. It was priceless going back home to put on a conference to inform, empower, and connect the first-generation community alongside Aissa, and an inspiring group of talented Alumni from my high school. This organization has inspired me to be a catalyst for change and to never settle for the way things are set up because if a change needs to be made, what better person to make that change happen than YOU. 


Jackson Riegler, Oshki

Jackson was a freshman at U-M Ann Arbor when he participated in the Social Innovation Challenge and received a project grant and fellowship to work on his project Oshki. Oshki is an apparel brand that makes clothing out of recycled plastic waste from the Great Lakes and other US waterways. Learn more about Oshki here. 

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From the Social Innovation Challenge, I gained personal skills of increasing self-confidence and improvement in public speaking and storytelling. The Challenge also increased my optimism in our generation’s ability to change the world for the better. Being surrounded with dozens of like-minded individuals helped change my outlook on our future. 

The Fellowship and project grant gave me the capital work with US manufacturers in developing custom sustainable fabrics make of plastic waste from the Great Lakes and other US waterways for my clothing company, Oshki. The mentorship side of the Fellowship helped me cultivate the impact I could make without feeling forced to act in ways I did not feel comfortable. Being a team of one, bouncing ideas/thoughts off of the wide mentor network at optiMize helped alleviate the impact I was able to make.

I am passionate about the power of business in scaling a passion for social change. It is more of a double-benefit situation for my customers that help scale the impact towards preserving the Great Lake I am passionate about. With each purchase of an Oshki shirt, my customers are helping preserve the Great Lakes through plastic extraction and donations to nonprofits as well as receive a durable, sustainable shirt that reduces the impact of Fast Fashion. Growing up on the shores of Lake Michigan, I became aware of many threats to the Great Lakes watershed. With limited government assistance to the issues, it is the common individual in these communities who has to stand up for what is right and protect these vital sources of freshwater. 

I encourage you to participate in optiMize because you are able to scale the impact you want to make on the Earth in a way previously unimaginable. You have one time to live here, one college experience, we are lucky enough to live in a generation where you don’t have to wait until your professional career to make a sizable impact on the world - join and help make the world a better place.


Grace Coudal, STAA COLLECTIVE

Grace is a junior at the University of Michigan and worked on STAA COLLECTIVE as a Summer Fellow. STAA is an activist art group that uses art as a means to explore intimacy, identity, and individuality. Visit STAA on their Instagram or newly launched website

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It was the beginning of fall my sophomore year that I decided I wanted to transfer out of Umich. I was not enjoying Michigan, and I wanted to move to New York and go to school there to pursue my career in Art and Design. I didn't feel like I fit in at Michigan, and I didn't feel like there was a community that would support my passions of art and activism in Ann Arbor. At the same time as I started looking into transferring out of Michigan, I also applied to optiMize. As the year went on and I continued going to optiMize workshops, I started realizing that there was a chance I could put my passions into a project that I could pursue, even if I still didn't love the rest of Michigan. I eventually toured schools in New York, prepared to leave Michigan by Junior year but after my trip, I was still lost with if I wanted to take the risk of leaving or staying. When I got back to Ann Arbor, my optiMize partner and I both decided that if we continued with optiMize and we won the grant, it would be a sign for both of us to stay at Michigan. 

We put everything we had into the pitch and the future of our activist art group, STAA COLLECTIVE. With adrenaline, we continued through the optiMize challenge, and the idea of transferring started getting further away. Eventually, we pitched after weeks of hard work, and we won the grant. I was in awe. This was the sign. optiMize was providing me with the opportunity for me to make Michigan exactly what I wanted it to be, to take control of my life with the resources I had. I am not lying when I say optiMize is the best thing that has happened to me while at Michigan. Without the community and dedication of the optiMize team and the opportunity to pursue a dream of mine and my partners, I would have never stayed here. optiMize gave me a reason to stay here, and a reason to love Michigan. I am forever grateful for what the Social Innovation Challenge has provided to my life and the community it has given to me.

We, in STAA COLLECTIVE, have primarily been working on or social presence online, in order to engage with people worldwide about the topics we are passionate about. Over the summer, we have gained a substantial following online, but truly the most rewarding part of it has been the openness of strangers to our collective. We have had countless messages sent to us from individuals opening up to us and being vulnerable about their experiences with intimacy, navigating their identity, and much more. We have had many people reach out, asking about the collective and possibility for collaboration. Although our impact has been through the digital world, we could not be more honored by all of the individuals that trust us enough to tell us about the intimate parts of their lives and experiences. That is our goal of STAA COLLECTIVE, to create artwork that is vulnerable and honest enough for others to open up and start larger conversations. 

As an artist, I am passionate about creating meaningful work to create change in the world. I am passionate about art and design, as well as the topics of intimacy, sexuality, gender, and identity. The ability to combine all of my passions into one project, one brand, one collective, is a dream that I am currently curating. STAA COLLECTIVE'S goal is to challenge societal norms on intimacy, sexuality, identity, and individuality through individual and collaborative art projects. We are a partnership of young artists that use art as a way to initiate conversations around sexuality and identity through the universal language of art.

I remember when I first saw about optiMize when I was on a bus headed to the Art and Design school. I remember reading an optiMize poster that said something along the lines of 'Have an idea? Want to make a difference? Join optiMize’s Social Innovation Challenge. After talking with another friend about the poster, we decided to look up optiMize online and were immediately drawn in to how welcoming and giving the community seemed. I applied with an idea at the time, and as the workshops started, I started feeling like part of the community of people wanting to make a change in the world.


Aissa Cabrales, Mi Casa Es Tu Casa

Aissa is a sophomore who worked on the project Mi Casa Es Tu Casa. Mi Casa Es Tu Casa is an outreach program in central California that helps families with limited resources learn about their post-secondary options through online and in-person resources. Aissa is now a peer-advisor in the optiMize Leadership Group. 

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Growing up as a minority I’ve witnessed many issues ranging from immigration, to education, and so much more that I desperately wished that someone else would have solved. Coming to the University of Michigan I felt so small and insignificant thinking to myself, what does a little Mexican girl have to offer to this campus, to this space, and to the rest of the world?

But thanks to my really close friend Evelyn Reyes, that mentality changed. She introduced me to optiMize and the project she was working on, Mi Casa Es Tu Casa, and I was immediately blown away by her passion and drive to be the change within her community. Until optiMize and the Social Innovation Challenge, I never understood the impact that one person with a single idea could have on a community. 

optiMize completely changed my life and has truly shaped me into the person I am today. Thanks to optiMize, I found the confidence and leadership skills I never knew I had within myself. optiMize taught met to stop waiting for change to happen and take direct action because, why not me? 

I used to believe that my ideas were not worthy or valid enough to be heard but through optiMize, I learned that I do in fact have ideas worth sharing that can make an impact on the world. That despite my age I can make people stop and listen to what I have to offer because my words are powerful and worth listening to. 

To me optiMize is an ongoing journey of personal growth surrounded by an amazing group of supportive people. To simply stop, accept, and appreciate the unknown because that is when you learn the most. optiMize taught me to trust in myself and my abilities and to just go with it and see what happens. 


Cristian Guillen, Peerstachio

Cristian has been involved with optiMize since his freshman year. Initially joining our organizing team, he has been serving in student staff roles and peer advising roles for his whole college career. Last year, he the optiMize Cohort with the project team Peerstachio, and has since created a new project working on the Foster Care system. 

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Joining the optiMize challenge was an amazing opportunity to grow as a team but as a person. As I reflect back throughout this past year I’m glad that I joined the challenge since I had the ability to grow as a person and during the first workshop surrounding visioning. It allowed me to place myself one year from now and seeing my future self was super cool. I really would say that optiMize played a huge role in my undergrad experience. Each time I went to each workshop I always felt welcomed and everyone was very supportive of the project we were working on and our team, Peerstachio, was super enthusiastic and it was super great to hear feedback about our idea. We were able to work with ITS and started the process of developing a pipeline that would connect to the Canvas system at the University of Michigan. We were super happy for the opportunity to test out our software throughout a couple of courses and to know that all the hard work we put in was about to be used by people. optiMize embolden us to ask the question of “why not me”. I really can’t think of a better question to ask yourself about anything your passionate or anything you want to change. So I ask the same question “why not me?”

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