February 25, 2011

Uncommon Fund apps nearly triple

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Though the U of C won’t see a flying billboard on the quads or be providing the “nation with high-potential University of Chicago sperm” anytime soon, 35 other uncommon proposals were notified yesterday that they’re still in the running to receive Uncommon Fund grants.

After four and a half hours of debate on the 146 submitted proposals, the Uncommon Fund board voted late Wednesday night to whittle down the applicant pool by 24 percent.

The increase in proposals—last year only 54 were submitted—is chiefly reflective of the board’s new web platform-based application Joinstart and an increase in publicity, according to first-year and board member Forrest Scofield.

“There’s a few projects that I’m really excited about. There were so many diverse and so many zany UChicago activities,” Scofield said.

“There’s a project that would bring puppies and kittens from shelters during finals week,” he added with excitement.

The projects chosen cover a wide range of possibilities, including a yoga program for homeless women and children, a day-long conference on the sociological implications of Jersey Shore, an Oriental tea house, pens of kittens and puppies on campus during finals week, and the development of a bracelet that would display the wearer’s hydration levels.

Projects were judged based on feasibility, impact, and “uncommonness,” according to the fund’s website. Third-year David Showater thinks his project, the conference on Jersey Shore, is exactly what the fund is looking for.

“This is very uncommon, most people think it’s a joke, but studying Jersey Shore in an academic, analytical way is very Uncommon,” Showater said. “Just because something is considered popular culture doesn’t mean it’s not worth studying.”

If funded, the conference would be an all-day affair, flying in sociologists from around the country to speak about the changing roles of gender and ethnicity on the show, as well as studying reality TV as a 21st century phenomenon. Funding would cover bringing in speakers, food, and publicity.

Several projects were rejected because the board thought funding could be found elsewhere. “A lot of the projects were well established, like TEDx, but could get funding elsewhere or if there was another organization on campus...already involved in the project,” first-year and board member Angela Wang said.

One project chosen for the next round, initiated by Saba Berhler, a first-year student at the Pritzker School of Medicine, has already experienced some success but fizzled out in January without enough funding. Last fall, the free clinic at the Maria Shelter, a transitional living center for homeless women and children, ran a program that combined traditional therapeutic methods with yoga.

“We want to give these women something fun to do and tie it into an educational seminar, have a space to breathe and reflect and think about experiences,” Berhler said.

As for uncommonness, Berhler said that wellness is often overlooked among underprivileged communities. “For women in such an under-served community, wellness is often the last thing on their minds,” she said.

For those projects which have been chosen, the next step is beginning a mentorship program with students from the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship at the Booth School who will help them reassess their projects and budgets.

The step is an added development to the Uncommon Fund designed to help winners better utilize resources. “The mentoring part gives projects a third party view. It will take people with experience, provide oversight, provide possible connects, and resources,” Scofield said.

Additionally, the mentoring program will help some of the project teams assess their budgets, according to Scofield. Several of the projects didn’t prove themselves feasible monetarily, but the board voted them through, hoping they’ll work with mentors to review their budgets.

The hydration bracelet, a project started by Alex Golovin, requests $25,000—more than half of the fund’s $40,000—more than any other project. Scofield said this team will benefit from the mentorship in learning ways to cut corners, and find funding elsewhere.

Another way students can lower their budgets, according to Uncommon Fund board chair and third-year David Chen, is the new collaboration with Illinois Institute for Technology (IIT) students, who can view and join projects that interest them.

“After talking to a lot of students, one of the biggest problems is finding a developer. Student Government (SG) has had this problem before,” said Chen, who is the SG vice president for administration.