Katlyn Grasso's parents and all-girls high school made her feel she could become a leader - and she did. But the University of Pennsylvania senior has seen many other young women afraid to raise their hand in class and wary of volunteering for leadership roles.
The 21-year-old Buffalo native has a plan to begin to change that - and Penn is going to fund it.
Grasso is among five students announced on Wednesday as the winners of the university's first "President's Engagement Prize." Penn President Amy Gutmann created the new awards in August to spur students to put their talent to use on a local, national or global project to better mankind.
The winners, selected from a pool of 37 applicants from a senior class of 2,400, will receive as much as $50,000 for living expenses and as much as $100,000 to carry out their project.
Other winning projects, selected by the committee of faculty and a member of the board of trustees, range from building a rainwater and catchment purification system in Kenya to designing a home-care cardiac rehabilitation program in New York. Grasso's project will help high school girls nationally launch advocacy campaigns to improve their local communities and boost their own confidence in the process.
While other colleges have such awards, Penn's are believed to be the largest of their kind in higher education.
"I'm still in shock. I can't believe it," said Grasso, 21, a Wharton economics major.
Grasso started her organization, GenHERation, a year ago, and it currently is staffed by 18 volunteers. The university money will allow the group, she said, to go on a 10-city tour this summer to inspire high school girls to work on issues that concern them; Philadelphia will be one of the first cities. She hopes to inspire 15,000 girls nationwide to take on campaigns, she said.
She is concerned, she said about the lack of female leaders in business and higher education.
"In order to overcome that leadership gap, girls must develop the confidence in themselves and exercise leadership at a young age…to pursue leadership positions later in life," said Grasso, who holds several leadership roles on campus in addition to overseeing GenHERation. "I feel a personal obligation to address this issue."
Grasso, like the other winners, will be mentored by a Penn staffer, in her case, Lee Kramer, director of student life at Wharton.
Gutmann said she was thrilled with both the number and quality of inaugural applications for the prize, and though she set out to award only three, she decided to fund four.
"The projects were both creative and have the potential for significant social uplift," she said.
The projects, she added, "underscore the University of Pennsylvania's commitment to urging our students to put their knowledge into practice" for the public good.
Student winners, she said, have a track record of excellence at Penn and a good shot at success.
"I really feel like this is the dream of every Penn nursing student - to be able to change the world," said Jodi Feinberg, 22, of Short Hills, N.J. "The fact that the president of the University of Pennsylvania is going to support me in doing this, I'm over the moon."
Feinberg will design a home-based rehabilitation program for cardiac patients, with the support of the New York University Langone Medical Center and the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. The goal is to bridge the inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation, she said.
Matthew Lisle, 22, a mechanical engineering major from Bryn Mawr, will design and build the water purification system in Kimana, Kenya. He and fellow student winner, Adrian Lievano, 21, a mechanical engineering major from Miami, will use seeds from an indigenous tree so that the project is sustainable for the long-term, Lisle said. A friend doing another project in Kenya heard about the seed and told Lisle and his partner.
Ever since he learned about the need for water purification in class, he's wanted to find a way to help. The engagement prize offered the chance.
"It's an amazing opportunity," he said.
Shadrack Osei Frimpong, 22, a Ghana native, will design a health clinic and all-girls school to serve his impoverished home village of Tarkwa Breman and seven surrounding villages. Girls education, said the biology major, often isn't taken seriously in his community.
"They have the notion that the place for the girl child is the kitchen," he said. "That's a notion I really want to challenge."
The winners will report back on the success of their endeavors and may be asked to serve as advisers to future winners, Gutmann said.