“Everyone thinks of Detroit as this dilapidated urban decay,” says Paulina Kriska, CCAS BS ’15, “but there’s a lot of life here. There’s a big collaborative effort to combat a lot of Detroit’s issues.”
Paulina, who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in biology from GW in just three years, is on the front lines of that effort. She is one of 31 individuals selected this year to participate in Challenge Detroit, a fellowship that aims to bring both inside and outside talent to revitalize the city.
“The program is twofold,” explains Paulina. “We work four days a week, Monday through Thursday. Each fellow is paired with a Detroit-based host company, like Penske, GM, or Goodwill Industries. On Fridays, all the fellows come together to focus on ‘challenges’ that benefit the Detroit community.”
While at GW, Paulina was involved in clubs and organizations on every corner of campus. In addition to being a Resident Advisor for two years, a member of pre-health fraternity Delta Epsilon Mu, and working with both TEDxFoggyBottom and Capitol Food Recovery, she was heavily involved with GW’s Alternative Breaks, which first introduced her to Challenge Detroit.
“I participated in the spring 2014 GW Alternative Break trip to Detroit, and that’s where I first heard about this amazing opportunity,” Paulina says. “Truly, GW and the Alternative Spring Break program is why I’m here now.”
Paired with Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit, in part because of her marketing experience with TEDxFoggyBottom, Paulina is working on several projects, including optimizing the company’s search results on Bing and Google and working on advertisements that appear in local papers. She also helped the company design an expo held earlier this year.
“My experience with Goodwill has been fascinating so far,” she says. “It’s been a great way to learn about people in the community.”
The “challenges” Paulina and the other fellows focus on each Friday are a key component of the fellowship program. Challenge Detroit will solve six challenges throughout the year, each five weeks long.
In their first challenge, Paulina and her colleagues worked with Detroit mayor Mike Duggan’s office to create a small business narrative aimed at bringing business back to Detroit before the holiday season. Currently, the team is working on ways to improve Detroit Public Schools.
“Right now we’re trying to come up with a plan to increase parent engagement, because that’s a big issue in some of these schools. It’s not necessarily that the parents don’t care, it’s just that they have other things to worry about,” Paulina says. “I’m working in one of the hardest schools in the sense that it is impoverished and in one of the most crime-stricken parts of Detroit.”
She is particularly enthusiastic about the hands-on experience that being immersed in the community has offered.
“We talk to principals, we talk to parents, we talk to teachers, we talk to students; it’s all so that we can get a better understanding of Detroit and its resiliency. It’s incredible,” Paulina says.
Paulina says that she’s also drawn to Detroit because, coincidentally, she was born in the city and lived there for three years while her parents, both doctors and Slovakian immigrants, completed their residencies. Her family later moved to North Carolina, where she grew up and plans on returning to for dental school next year. But Paulina says she can “totally see myself living in Detroit in the future.”
“Detroit has become a home to me in many different ways,” she adds. “So far, it’s been a great place for me to grow.”
Paulina plans to apply everything she’s learning through the fellowship to her future dental career and is interested in providing dental care to underserved communities like Detroit.
“Challenge Detroit is a way of applying the skills I learned at GW beyond just what I focused on in my major,” Paulina explains. “This is my gap year before I go to dental school, but it’s perfect because it’s aligned with what I want to do. I think it’s incredibly important for dentists to be aware of social issues that are going on in our communities.”
Already six months into the program, Paulina says that Detroit has become a source of unexpected inspiration.
“What’s interesting about Detroit is even though it’s a 700,000 person city, it still feels like a small town,” she says. “There’s a lot of love and creativity and innovation for sure.”