Katja Della Libera (2021) shares advice on how to move forward with projects in a city – from civic partnerships to personal projects. 

 

The next round of Civic Projects are around the corner, and you might be wondering if they are worth the time and effort or what exactly you should expect. Or maybe you found another random project you are thinking about starting, but aren’t sure if it would keep you from getting those sweet 4s.

There’s no simple answer to these concerns, but here’s some advice to find what works best for you.

Can I stick to this? Do I need to?

Don’t take on a project without knowing why you want to commit to it or having an exit plan if it becomes too much. If it is something you can try out once and don’t have to do regularly, like volunteering for an NGO that doesn’t rely on your continued commitment, go for it. For projects that require dedicated participation, think about your reasons for doing them:  Are you passionate about the cause? Do you want this for your resume or portfolio? Are you getting paid? Will you turn it into an academic project? Does it help you relax? Consider if your reason will keep you going when time is scarce.

The Winter Wings data submission form

Example 1: Winter Wings Civic Project

This semester in Seoul, I found a Civic Project which I really like. We are working with researchers at Ewha Woman’s University to develop a citizen science project which lets hobby birdwatchers submit their data to be analyzed by researchers. We are planning events, going out to learn about birds, hanging out at a real campus, and meeting the members of the lab. I redesigned the project’s data submission process, giving me an opportunity to work on my web development skills. I’m sure some of this will work and some won’t, but my personal contribution to the project has already been a success. Because this is something I want to put on my resume and portfolio, I knew I would put in the required work and I also thought it would be nice to get out and learn about the local fauna from an expert.

More on the project: http://winterwings-korea-english.strikingly.com

Example 2: German choir

During the second semester in San Francisco, I found a German women’s choir. It’s not something  I would put on my resume or get credit for, but I love choir. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if I quit halfway, and my best friend joined with me. So, I gave it a shot and ended up sticking to it for the rest of the semester. The group of elderly German immigrants became my set of German grandmas and gave me so much. They loved having two younger members and gifted us with lots of food and stories from their life, ranging from fleeing Poland after World War II to their immigration to the US and current struggles. It was wonderful to put into perspective the terrifying moments of struggling through college with someone who has lived for more than 80 years. After our last concert, my friend and I promised to send our grandmas postcards from every city.

PC: Christopher Wolfram
The German women’s choir in San Francisco at a spring concert.

Expect failure

A lot of projects will fail. Especially for Civic Projects, the framework Minerva provides sets really high expectations which are often not entirely attainable. I found it rather weird to sit down with my Civic Project group and come up with goals, team member roles, milestone meetings, and a team crest, none of which we would ever revisit during the semester or actually do (it all depends on the project). You will fail, but you will also gain experience from how you failed. Remember the Anna Karenina principle: “Successful projects are alike; every unsuccessful project fails in its own way.”

For me, it is hard to look at Minerva’s marketing material about such projects, because it is easy to only see the positives – in retrospect, especially in a text whose goal is to appeal to potential applicants and other people outside the Minerva community. It makes me uncomfortable and feeds into fear of missing out, even if I know that some of the projects included had lot more struggles and are less successful than they sound from a distance (the two examples I gave included). Keeping that in mind, it’s easier to stay realistic and not get frustrated with my own experience.

It’s important to determine what success is for you in the first place: A good conversation with a local? Changing the world? There’s a big difference and both are worth aiming for.

Example 3: The 2021 Acapella Group

I had done acapella before Minerva and really wanted to continue singing in college, so I was glad when I found other students with musical talent to co-lead an acapella MiCo. We were getting excited about lining up opportunities to perform  and perhaps forming partnerships in the city. Lots of people showed interest, but when it was time for us to get started, nobody committed and we eventually gave up.

I could reflect on what this taught me about leadership, or how I would have never ended up singing with a dozen lovely German ladies, had the acapella MiCo worked out, but it was frustrating. People are busy and things are going to fail, which brings me to an important point.

Do it anyway!

Last but not least, I really want to encourage you to take on some kind of project. Anything. It’s so easy to get stuck in your room and fill all your time with Netflix and academics. You’ll never feel like you have time, but if it’s possible in any way, I encourage you to find one or two projects and commit to them. Not too many (you know who you are), but something outside of academics from which you can learn.