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Friday, March 24, 2023
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Fellowship encourages spreading the Wisconsin Idea

Former UW-Madison President Charles Van Hise defined the Wisconsin Idea as a goal: He wanted the university to impact lives throughout the state. UW-Madison freshman Caroline Hanson kept this message in mind while creating a project that focused on the issue of food insecurity on the local level, which she said is often overlooked “in people’s own backyard.”

Hanson’s idea—The Patio Tomato Project—distributes fresh tomatoes to low-income families in the Madison area. She will also offer them educational materials about maintaining tomato plants and culinary ideas. Her project is moving forward with financial help from a grant she was awarded, along with six other students or groups, through the Wisconsin Idea Fellowship.

The WIF awards roughly seven fellowships annually and aids students in implementing service projects that will impact the campus and beyond. The program, which is open to students who hold sophomore to senior standing, offers logistical assistance as well as up to $7,000 in funding. It connects participants with a community partner and a UW-Madison faculty or academic staff advisor to address social problems that have been identified locally, nationally and globally, according to Wisconsin Idea Fellowship Graduate Assistant Garrett Grainger.

“The whole notion of the Wisconsin Idea is to make the university and benefits of the university accessible beyond the ivory tower and to the residents of the state,” Grainger said. “We’re trying to use the resources of the students … we want to give [the grants] to them so they can go out into the community and address problems that the community is identifying as relevant and needs to be resolved.”

For The Patio Tomato Project, Hanson teamed up with The River Food Pantry and was advised by Jeri Barak-Cunningham, an associate professor in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Barak-Cunningham has assisted in growing tomatoes, which they plan to distribute at community events and at parks in low-income Madison neighborhoods. They will send messages about the benefits of vegetables to children heavily and distribute further information about the produce.

“We’re hoping we can increase that connection that people used to have to where their food comes from,” Hanson said. “There’s been a disconnect between … food that comes from the supermarket, what is this, how was it made. We’re really hoping to bridge that gap that has been forming.”

Another recipient of the WIF will also target younger people, but instead of promoting healthy diets, UW-Madison senior Morgan Sanger and sophomore Renee Olley will encourage middle school girls to pursue careers in science, technologies, engineering and mathematics fields.

Their project, Eva the Engineer: Young Girls at the Intersection of Engineering and Sustainability, will engage small groups of female students at Badger Rock Middle School in several educational and interactive sessions about civil engineering. Sanger and Olley partnered with the Wisconsin Concrete Pavement Association, who will be involved in offering the students hands-on learning experiences about the use of recycled materials in concrete.

“Starting them at such a young age, we can make an impact in the Madison area where we encourage and inspire these young girls to see themselves as engineers or scientists,” Sanger said. “Then, likely, some of them will stay in the Madison area and it will keep it a rich intellectual culture that we have with the university here. I’m hoping it has both individual impacts on the girls and lasting community impacts as well.”

One other group is keeping their project close to campus. Lauren Silber and Maddie Zimmerman are working with the UW-Madison student organization Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment to facilitate workshops that “outline the meat and potatoes of dating violence,” according to Zimmerman.

Through research, the duo discovered there are several programs at UW-Madison that offer services or material focusing on sexual assault, but none that discuss dating violence specifically. The team connected with Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, a Madison nonprofit organization, to form Relationships For Leaders, Advocates and Greek Students

“We talk a little bit about the statistics surrounding dating violence, bystander intervention and general red flags of dating violence,” Zimmerman said. “We're pretty specified in our material. We're not giving into the sexual assault world … we're really trying to focus on dating violence because that seems like the most tangible relatable issue for college students.”

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Each of the students interviewed said they plan to continue expanding their projects, collaborate with more individuals and groups, and will maintain their work for years to come.

“Van Hise, when he was talking about the Wisconsin Idea, he really wanted the impact to reach every family in the state of Wisconsin, and people have been interpreting that to mean every family in the world,” Hanson said. “We’re bringing the Wisconsin idea home by targeting those families in the state and following Van Hise’s intention.”

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