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Rackham Alumni Among Ford Thirty Under 30 Fellows

the Thirty Under 30 program fellows

Rackham is excited to have an active representation in one of Ford’s newest community outreach efforts led by the Ford Motor Company Fund, the Thirty Under 30 program. This initiative is dedicated to instilling a sense of community in their employees and connecting millennials to the nonprofit world. Over the course of a year, the cohort of fellows, selected from more than 300 applicants nationwide, will work with local nonprofits in various capacities. Four of those fellows are alumni of the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School, and have dedicated their time outside of their usual roles at Ford to serve local nonprofits, including Gleaners Community Food Bank, Fish and Loaves Community Food Pantry, and the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. We reached out to Cory von Achen, Khalid Ahmed, Mackenzie Fankell, and PJ Wascher to ask them about their interest in nonprofit service, their experience as part of the Thirty Under 30 program, and how their time at Rackham prepared them for their role at Ford and in the community. To learn how Rackham alumni are impacting their communities through service, see their responses below.

Cory von Achen

Cory von Achen, 2017 Fellow, Gleaners Community Food Bank

Hometown: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Graduate Degree: Master of Science in Environmental Engineering
Graduation Year: 2012

How did you engage in community involvement while you were a student at Michigan?

While a student at the University of Michigan I volunteered as a futsal coach at the Ann Arbor YMCA with co-recreational teams of seven to nine year-old children. As a Wallenberg International Summer Travel Fellow, I was privileged to travel across South America, connecting with and learning from those I met along the way. Through the Pantanal Partnership I helped design and build a school and research center in the Brazilian portion of the Pantanal, which is the world’s largest wetland. After constructing the school and research station, we went around the region conducting workshops with schools and orphanages on public health and environmental conservation.

What made you want to apply for the Thirty Under 30 fellowship?

The Thirty Under 30 program sounded like a great way to get involved in the local community, to learn, and to potentially help create positive change. These things caught my attention and life is too short, so I figured I should give it a go.

What has been the most fulfilling experience as a Thirty Under 30 fellow so far?

It is hard to pick just one, so I’d like to share a couple. So far I feel that the most fulfilling experience has been meeting and connecting with people all throughout Gleaners Community Food Bank (my team’s partner organization) and the people they serve. Next, working with my team to understand the complexity and challenges of food insecurity has been ongoing and another very fulfilling experience so far, even though the weight of the issue can be a lot to face.

How did your experience as a graduate student at Rackham prepare you for your role at Ford and as a Thirty Under 30 fellow?

The Rackham Graduate School helped prepare me for my role at Ford by teaching me that an eagerness to learn and curiosity lead to success, while deep technical understanding leads to excellence and mastery. Rackham also helped prepare me to be a Thirty Under 30 fellow by allowing me to have diverse international experiences beyond the classroom that helped open and expand my mind, something that is essential for the Design Thinking process. I am very grateful and feel privileged to say I am a graduate of the Rackham Graduate School. All of the people I met and all of the professors I learned from while at the University of Michigan helped me get to where I am today. I could not have done it without them all.

What advice would you offer current graduate students who want to get involved in their community?

My advice to current graduate students who want to get involved in their community is go do it! Say hello to your neighbor. Go to events in your community that interest you and talk to people. Ask questions. Find ways to use your amazing skills and talents to help others. You can do fantastic things! And don’t be afraid to fail. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”

Khalid Ahmed

Khalid Ahmed, 2017 Fellow, Gleaners Community Food Bank

Hometown: Chennai, India
Graduate Degree: Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering
Graduation Year: 2015

How did you engage in community involvement while you were a student at Michigan?

While still a graduate student at Michigan, I was involved with a number of student groups including Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honors Society (TBP), Epeians Engineering Leadership Honor Society, and the Muslim Engineering Students Association. My first engagement with the community in Detroit was through a TBP initiative called the Detroit Pen Pals. While working with such groups I realized my passion for community involvement, and I became closely involved with the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor. During these experiences, I learned that in order to make a great impact on a society, you must often begin with small and consistent steps towards achieving a well-defined goal.

What made you want to apply for the Thirty Under 30 fellowship?

“Let’s make the world a better place!” Given my love for numbers and my job as a data scientist, I am constantly looking for ways to optimize current processes to come up with solutions that can benefit everyone, and thus make the world a better place. With my inquisitive mind, I am often imagining the possibilities of optimally bringing together various solutions in order to solve community problems related to the vicious cycles of poverty and crime. I realized that such an opportunity would further increase my awareness of such issues and feed my energy to help make the world a better place.

What has been the most fulfilling experience as a Thirty Under 30 fellow so far?

The Thirty Under 30 program at Ford teaches us to use design thinking principles and help non-profit partners push their boundaries and reach beyond their goals. My most fulfilling experience thus far has been the enthusiasm from our non-profit partner in recognizing the value we bring and expanding to even larger goals. For example, we are engaged with Gleaners Food Bank to help develop a machine learning algorithm that identifies regions of food insecurity using various inputs. Their excitement for the idea helped extend this to the unavailability of select produce in various regions as well as the supply of produce from nearby farms, etc.

How did your experience as a graduate student at Rackham prepare you for your role at Ford and as a Thirty Under 30 fellow?

During my graduate studies, I was involved with computational research for the self-assembly of designer crystal structures. In addition, I came across the Michigan Institute for Computational Discovery and Engineering (MICDE) and Michigan Institute for Data Science (MIDAS). These institutes provide a unique opportunity to take courses that help apply your skillset in fields beyond your home department. After being selected as a fellow of MICDE, I realized that my true passion belonged in applying machine learning skills to solve problems across various domains. At Ford, I have been analyzing customer usage of powertrain and other features of electrified cars to gather insight and develop strategies for the better proliferation of electric vehicles. As a Thirty Under 30 fellow, I am learning the importance of recognizing the underlying cause for any given problem and I use my training at U-M to address these with the latest methodologies.

What advice would you offer current graduate students who want to get involved in their community?

There are numerous opportunities for students at U-M to further their education beyond their specific field and increase their skill set. I would recommend students to take your learning to the next level by constantly looking for opportunities to apply your training. There is no better place for this than the immediate community around you. While these community projects add value to your resume, their real value is in the experiences that they provide you with-- nurturing your personality and helping to widen your perspectives and shape your thought process.

Mackenzie Fankell

Mackenzie Fankell, 2017 Fellow, Fish and Loaves Community Food Pantry

Hometown: Northville, Michigan
Graduate Degree: Master of Arts in Applied Statistics
Graduation Year: 2014

How did you engage in community involvement while you were a student at Michigan?

The new common core state standards in education place increased emphasis on teaching students statistical concepts. As a graduate student, I became involved in an initiative to introduce teachers to statistical concepts and activities that they could use in their classrooms to meet the new state standards.

What made you want to apply for the Thirty Under 30 fellowship?

There were so many reasons why I wanted to be part of Thirty Under 30! I wanted to meet other young people at Ford that were interested in making a difference in the community. I also thought it would be a great way to be introduced to initiatives that were going on in the Detroit area.

What has been the most fulfilling experience as a Thirty Under 30 fellow so far?

For the past 6 months, we have been working on using design thinking to develop an innovation that could transform a facet of a non-profit organization. For me, the most fulfilling moment so far has been presenting our non-profit partners with our innovative ideas. It was great to see their reactions to all of our hard work and exciting to talk about next steps to developing the ideas.

How did your experience as a graduate student at Rackham prepare you for your role at Ford and as a Thirty Under 30 fellow?

As a graduate student in the Department of Statistics, I learned a lot about critical thinking. There are a lot of dimensions to statistical analysis, and you have to think about all of the moving pieces in order to make sure that the results are accurate. I think that I apply the same strategies to my work at Ford and Thirty Under 30-- my team and I have to consider all of the possibilities in order to make sure that our end result is the best that it can be.

What advice would you offer current graduate students who want to get involved in their community?

There are a lot of groups around campus that are looking for volunteers. One of my favorites is the Ginsberg Center!

P.J. Wascher

P.J. Wascher, 2016 Fellow, United Way for Southeastern Michigan

Hometown: West Bloomfield, Michigan
Graduate Degree: Master of Science in Information
Graduation Year: 2012

What made you want to apply for the Thirty Under 30 fellowship?

I was interested in the opportunity to develop my civic engagement skills and help Ford evolve its impact in the community. I thought this program sounded like an exciting opportunity to think about large community issues. I wanted to see if we could find a new way to do things and help philanthropic organizations prepare for the next generation.

What has been the most fulfilling experience as a Thirty Under 30 fellow so far?

I appreciate everyone I’ve met in this program. My team and the rest of the Under 30 fellows had so much passion for this project. The energy made this experience very special. Everyone was trying so hard to attempt big innovative ideas. It was also great to work with the philanthropic organizations across Southeastern Michigan. Seeing how open they were to new ideas gave us the confidence to offer every idea we had.

How did your experience as a graduate student at Rackham prepare you for your role at Ford and as a Thirty Under 30 fellow?

Overall, my schoolwork at Michigan aligned very well to this program. Several of my classes involved large-scale team projects. You can never have enough practice working in teams. Thirty Under 30 also utilized the design-thinking framework, which I first learned and practiced in a class project. Little did I know how important that framework would become in my career. Having that first opportunity to practice it at Michigan allowed me to focus on the nuances and changes since I first used it five years ago.

What advice would you offer current graduate students who want to get involved in their community?

Think big. It has never been a better time to go for some crazy idea you have. Take the time to learn about the communities you are trying to help first, but don’t let a lack overall experience/network stop you from pursuing your ideas. Things are changing so fast now. You’d be surprised how many people are ready to embrace new ideas.

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