Katlyn Grasso got to Penn knowing she could be a leader, her confidence fed by supportive parents and her all-girls high school. But she saw that many other young women were hesitant about raising their hands in class and 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 Wednesday as the winners of the university's first "President's Engagement Prize." Penn president Amy Gutmann created the awards in August with funding from the university's board of trustees. The goal? To spur students to put their talent to use on a project to better mankind.
The winners, selected from 37 applicants in a senior class of 2,400, will receive up to $50,000 for living expenses and as much as $100,000 to carry out their project.
While other colleges have such awards, Penn's are believed to be the largest of their kind.
"I'm still in shock. I can't believe it," said Grasso, an economics major at the Wharton School. Her project will help high school girls across the country launch campaigns to improve their communities and boost their confidence.
Gutmann said that she was thrilled with the number and quality of inaugural applications for the prize and that she set out to award only three, but decided to fund four projects.
"The projects were both creative and have the potential for significant social uplift," she said.
She said student winners had a record of excellence at Penn and a good shot at success.
Jodi Feinberg, 22, of Short Hills, N.J., 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.
"I really feel like this is the dream of every Penn nursing student - to be able to change the world," she said.
Mechanical-engineering majors Matthew Lisle, 22, of Bryn Mawr, and Adrian Lievano, 21, of Miami, will design and build a rainwater and catchment purification system in Kimana, Kenya. They will use seeds from an indigenous tree to keep the project sustainable.
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 is not 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."
Grasso started her organization, GenHERation, a year ago and staffed it with 18 volunteers. The university money will let the group tour 10 cities this summer, including Philadelphia, to inspire high school girls to work on issues that concern them. She said she hoped to spur 15,000 girls nationwide to take on campaigns.
She said her project addresses 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," 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.