At a time when issues of social justice—racial equity, health disparities, income and education inequality—are top of mind, Gianni Morsell, a 2022 graduate of the School of Social Policy & Practice, is helping to build a more equitable society.
“Social justice is many things,” says Morsell. “For me, it’s about influencing policy and making real change happen.” After graduating, Morsell went to work for a nonprofit that advocates for forgiving student loan debt and improving student voter turnout.
Morsell is the first graduate of Penn’s Social Justice Scholars Program. The program was created by the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) to lift the financial burden of graduate student education through full-tuition funding for scholars. Preference is given to those graduating from historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.
“When I arrived after attending Morgan State University, I was embarking on this new experience with my cohort, and we formed a community right away,” says Morsell. She was joined in the first cohort by Paloma Brand and Skye Horbook, both expected to graduate in 2023.
Now in its second year, the program welcomed four scholars in 2022, offering a full-tuition scholarship, mentorship from powerful allies, and a welcoming community. The scholars are positioned to become change agents in higher education at a time when access to elite institutions is being reimagined.
“Particularly in a predominately white institution like Penn, it’s important to understand that investing in diversity through programs like the Social Justice Scholars not only benefits the scholars themselves, but also the institution as a whole,” says Yoosun Park, an associate professor in SP2 and faculty director of the Social Justice Scholars Program. “We’re aiming to train the next generation of leadership that will create new pathways and challenge the status quo, and it’s amazing to receive the financial support to do so.”
In July, the Social Justice Scholars Program received a $7.5 million infusion of support to bolster its offerings and expand the number of scholarships. The University offered a $5 million match to encourage additional giving, and an anonymous donor gave $2.5 million to the program.
“For more than 110 years, SP2 has worked to improve the lives of underserved and marginalized communities,” explained Sara S. Bachman, dean of SP2, at the time of the announcement in June of 2022. “These incredible resources will enable SP2 to grow its world-class education for students advancing their careers in social innovation, impact, and justice. I am thrilled that the School will have additional financial support to educate students and provide meaningful career preparation for many years to come.”
Social Justice Scholars are enrolled in one of SP2’s master’s programs: Master of Social Work, Master of Science in Social Policy, or Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership. “Social justice is a buzzword, but SP2 has been at the forefront of this work for many years,” says Adiza Ezell, SP2’s director of recruitment and admissions. “This program is intentional and reflects our commitment to racial justice, anti-colonialism, and abolitionist work.”
Members of the second cohort are Josh Arinze and Sparsh Maheshwari, both expected to graduate in 2023, and Joelle Eliza Lingat and Mayowa Fageyinbo, who will graduate in 2024. Beyond their standard course work, the Social Justice Scholars attend bespoke seminars, receive conference funding, and have access to the decision-makers they hope to one day become.
Arinze is enthusiastic about housing equity. “I have an interest in the worsening housing crisis in the United States,” he says. “I’d like to advocate for unhoused youth and for their access to education, housing, and employment.”
The potential of these young, motivated scholars is impossible to ignore. Maheshwari is passionate about reducing global socio-economic inequality and is enrolled in the Nonprofit Leadership Program. “I worked in the government of India with people who were engaged in the act of begging,” he says. “After working on a policy for the comprehensive rehabilitation of the poorest of the poor, it’s hard not to see the stark inequity.”
Having grown up in New Jersey, Lingat isn’t far from home. Yet, she already feels a world away. “The inspiration and desire for change at SP2 is palpable,” she says.
“The opportunity to help students who are building a more equitable society is incredibly exciting,” says Allison Weiss-Brady, a 1993 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences, the program’s first donor, and chair of SP2’s Development Committee. Gifts from other SP2 Board members, including Calvin Bland, a 1972 Wharton graduate, and Evan Roth, who graduated from both the College and Wharton in 1992, have directly impacted the program’s expansion. “As a Black man who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, I was denied access and opportunities simply because of my race,” says Bland. “The development of advocates and warriors against social and economic oppression is critical to creating a more equal society.” Roth met the inaugural cohort of scholars and was impressed with the diversity of their interests and the caliber of their talent, noting, “It was clear that these students would make amazing contributions to SP2 and the community at large.”
Vivian Gonda Zelter, a 1985 College graduate who served on SP2’s Board, stepped up early to support the program. “It’s a credit to Penn and SP2 that they could launch it in the midst of the pandemic,” she says. Penn alumni John Meyerhoff, a 1975 graduate of the Perelman School of Medicine, and Lenel Srochi-Meyerhoff, who graduated in 1971 from the College for Women and in 1973 with a Master of City Planning from the Weitzman School of Design, were inspired to support the program after reading about its launch. “The SP2 Social Justice Scholars Program represents a wonderful opportunity for John and me to support our values that were honed at Penn. We believe the scholars will help create a more just and equitable society,” Srochi-Meyerhoff says.
From the first graduate to the current cohort and beyond, this is only the start for the Social Justice Scholars and social innovation at SP2. “With more funding, we can dream big,” says Ezell.
Homepage image: Penn’s Social Justice Scholars Program was created by the School of Social Policy & Practice to lift the financial burden of graduate student education through full-tuition funding for scholars. Preference is given to those graduating from historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.