First-place Social Impact Fellows team helps connect refugees with critical resources

Prize money will allow Journey’s End Refugee Services to implement the UB team’s standout project

During the 2023 Social Impact Fellows program, 30 UB graduate students worked on multidisciplinary teams with 10 local nonprofits. Photos: Onion Studio

By Matthew Biddle

Published August 17, 2023

“The goal of this fellowship is explicit in its name — impact. Since it launched six years ago, our community partners have told us time and again that they have integrated our fellows’ innovative ideas into their programs. ”
Satish K. Tripathi, President
University at Buffalo

This summer, while working with Journey’s End Refugee Services, a team of Social Impact Fellows from the University at Buffalo discovered that it takes an average of 10 minutes for a case manager to connect one client with a single resource. To meet all their clients’ needs, case managers might spend hours each day scouring for essential services like housing, education, health care or food.

Ian Weeks, Arianna Wink and Ayesha Datta — students in UB’s MSW, MBA/MSW and PhD in Sociology programs, respectively — knew there had to be a better solution and worked together to create one. In just eight weeks, the team developed a database of organizations and services around the area, with filters based on location, hours of operation and other critical information.

Now, case managers can find the resources they need in just 45 seconds.

“This is going to make a huge difference for people who walk through our doors and need help right away,” says Natalie Edmister, a transitional case manager in the resettlement department at Journey’s End. “When an asylum seeker comes in, we can open the food spreadsheet and find somewhere that’s open right now. It’ll help us be more effective in helping people who are very vulnerable.”

On August 4, the team won first place in the Pitch for a Cause, the culminating event for the 2023 Social Impact Fellows program. Journey’s End will receive a $2,000 prize to help the nonprofit build upon the students’ work by adding a digital map to the database that can automatically update as important information changes.

“Having that visual representation of where resources are will be so helpful,” Edmister says. “For example, if we’re looking for permanent housing for someone who needs Halal food, we can see on that map where all the Halal grocery stores are and look for housing in those communities.”

The Pitch for a Cause is the culminating event for UB's Social Impact Fellows program, in which the students showcase the impactful projects they've developed at mission-driven organizations around Western New York.

Working together for good

The multidisciplinary Social Impact Fellows program brings students together from the UB School of Social Work, School of Management, and College of Arts and Sciences to create social innovation in Western New York. Working in teams of three with one graduate student from each school, the fellows research pressing social issues facing a local nonprofit, develop a solution and present their project during the Pitch for a Cause showcase.

In total, 30 fellows worked with 10 mission-driven organizations this summer on projects related to health care, sustainability, domestic violence, legal aid, trauma and other social issues.

“The goal of this fellowship is explicit in its name — impact,” UB President Satish K. Tripathi said during his opening remarks at the event. “Since it launched six years ago, our community partners have told us time and again that they have integrated our fellows’ innovative ideas into their programs.”

For Wink, the program was a major reason she enrolled in UB’s dual MBA/MSW program.

“I really wanted to be part of something that was going to have a meaningful and lasting impact,” she says. “This was a real, tangible way to be useful in the community, and that’s what I wanted.”

At Journey’s End, the team started by interviewing staff to understand their challenges and identify the most critically needed resources for their database. From there, they spent hours brainstorming what data they’d need to collect for various types of services and determining how to filter that information to be most useful for case managers. Finally, they got to work building their system and training staff to use it effectively.

The hallmark of the Social Impact Fellows program is how students collaborate and leverage their diverse perspectives to benefit the community.

“Arianna is very ‘big picture,’ Ayesha is very detail-oriented, and a lot of the time, I felt like the translator between the two,” Weeks explains, to agreement from his teammates.

“That’s the unique thing about a multidisciplinary team — you come in with different backgrounds,” says Datta, who was able to draw from her experiences working on projects related to women’s economic empowerment in India before coming to UB. “I helped to focus us on understanding the problem, while Arianna and Ian were really good with strategy building.”

At Pitch for a Cause, each team of fellows had five minutes to present their projects, followed by three minutes of Q&A from the judges.

Serving on this year’s judging panel were Michael Anderson, BA ’97, MBA ’17, senior vice president and regional retail banking administrator at Bank on Buffalo; John J. Herman, EMBA ’06, CEO of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health; Sonya A. Tareke, BS ’17, MBA ’21, co-founder and COO of Team Real Talk Inc.; and Alissa Venturini, MSW ’08, interim executive director of the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center of WNY.

Second place went to the team from Jewish Family Services (JFS) of Western New York: Emily Kersten, MSW; Ajaylah Humphrey, MBA/MSW; and Marie Dufay-Verbie, PhD in French language and literature. JFS will receive a $1,000 prize to help implement the team’s plan to expand its Trauma Systems Therapy program.

Finally, to thunderous applause, the Journey’s End team was named the winner.

“For me, one of the most impactful parts of the program was learning the process: how we started from a question, moved through interviews and turned that into something meaningful, while taking steps along the way to reflect and make sure we were actually addressing the problem,” Wink says. “It was really cool to see how much we were able to get done in such a short amount of time.”

Media Contact Information

Matthew Biddle
Director of Communications and Marketing
School of Social Work
Tel: 716-645-1226