Growing up “in the closet” in the small town of Lilburn, Ga., in a devout Catholic family, Brendan Taliaferro struggled with his identity as a gay man.
The experience inspired the University of Pennsylvania senior to collaborate with local organizations, including the Attic Youth Center and Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services, to implement an evidence-based “host homes” initiative for Philly LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.
For his efforts, Penn on Tuesday named Taliaferro one of nine graduating seniors to receive the annual President’s Engagement and Innovation Prizes. Each winning project comes with a $100,000 award to fund its development, and each team member receives $50,000 for living expenses while completing the work.
“I count myself really lucky," Taliaferro said. "I was never going to get kicked out of my home, but it definitely was really, really hard growing up … and not really knowing if the people who loved you and supported you would continue to … if they knew this one aspect of your identity.”
Engagement Prizes are awarded for nonprofit projects and Innovation Prizes are awarded for commercial innovation that helps make the world a better place.
The awards began in 2015 and are part of the university’s commitment to student engagement under Penn Compact 2020, an initiative that emphasizes innovation, inclusion, and impact. Since then, Penn has allocated more than $3 million in funding and living stipends under the program.
Penn president Amy Gutmann announced this year’s winners, who were selected from 72 applicants. Projects were judged on their ability to make a lasting positive impact on the world.
“I am immensely proud of our students’ commitment to meaningful work that extends beyond the classroom and the campus,” Gutmann said in a statement. “I congratulate all of this year’s prize recipients, and I wish them the very best as they move forward with their projects.
“Each of the prize recipients has demonstrated a purpose-driven desire to get out and make a difference in their community, across the country, and around the world,” she added.
Other Engagement Prize winners, working on nonprofit projects, include Princess Aghayere, Summer Kollie, and Oladunni Alomaja, who will build a basketball court and literacy-focused resource center in Monrovia, Liberia, to help local youth cope with stress and trauma, and José Maciel and Antonio Renteria, who will launch a community-oriented curriculum in Kennett Square’s agricultural workspaces.
Innovation award winner Michael Wong will spend the next year further developing InstaHub, a snap-on technology launched in 2016 that eliminates waste energy. Malika Shukurova and Katherine Sizov will buckle down on Strella Biotechnology, a biosensor that predicts the ripeness of fruit.
For Kollie, changing the narrative of the negative press surrounding Liberia through her project is key.
“When people think of Liberia, all they think about is the single story of civil war, [of] Ebola," said Kollie, a health and society major who immigrated to Southwest Philadelphia from Liberia with her family in 2003. “This project really intends to shed light on the positive things that can come out of Liberia, and shine light on the youth who are striving to make Liberia a better country."