In Atlanta, Affordable Housing Boosts School Performance, Tenant Health

Among the rolling hills and dense pine canopies east of Atlanta’s I-285 bypass, down the street from a halal meat market, two Buddhist temples and Good Times Country Cookin’, sits the Willow Branch Apartment Homes. The complex is tucked behind a flapping “Welcome” flag, which is emblematic of Clarkston, a small but famously global suburb that has been coined “Ellis Island South” and “the most diverse square mile in America.”
Built in 1971, Willow Branch looks like any other aging metro-Atlanta apartment building and dozens around Clarkston, save for its unique mansard roofs. But after school one warm afternoon in February, what used to be the pool house transforms into another thing that sets Willow Branch apart: a banner-bedecked classroom where a circle of refugee children, representing more than 30 ethnicities, sit squirming and giggling. The kids, all of whom are residents, play a clapping game, each contributing another word to a growing sentence they pass around the room like a hot potato: “Valentine’s. Day. Is. About. Moms. And. Dogs.” The last word sparks hysterical laughter.
“A lot of them, their parents don’t speak English and can’t help with their [school] work,” says Allie Reeser, the program director of the nonprofit Star-C, which runs the afterschool program at Willow Branch. “Socially, it’s a great place for kids to go.” Nearby, 8-year-old Elizabeth Mawi, who emigrated with eight siblings from Burma, concurs in a mousey voice: “It’s good, because we can share, and we help people.”
Held for four hours each weekday afternoon, the Star-C afterschool program is one part of a dynamic model — piloted here at the 186-unit Willow Branch, where the residents’ average income of $18,750 is well below the U.S. poverty line — that’s showing how affordable housing can boost performance in local schools, increase resident health and even quell crime.

For young Willow Branch residents, many of whom are not native English speakers, afterschool enrichment programs are an essential tool to succeed in school.

Alongside its fundraising arm, 3Star Communities, Star-C was founded by Marjy Stagmeier, 55, a successful manager of commercial and residential real estate around Atlanta. Her model, supporters say, is basically a three-way win for residents and investors in blighted apartment complexes in that it boosts social and environmental aspects for tenants and generates greater profits for landlords. Stagmeier’s research has uncovered no other program in the U.S. that combines wraparound services of housing, education, and medical care in the same way, though Yesler Terrace Apartments (operated by the Seattle Housing Authority) and Eden Housing (a California nonprofit housing developer and property manager) have similar components.
“If I had 10 more Marjy-run properties in Clarkston, there’s no doubt that our crime rate would drop even more, test scores would go up even more, and our community health and connections … would increase,” says Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry. “She’s creating a long-term, sustainable paradigm in multifamily housing that will pay dividends to our community for years to come.”
And Willow Branch’s successes, Stagmeier says, could be only the beginning in metro Atlanta — where recent studies show a deficit of more than 80,000 affordable housing units — and beyond. 


Philanthropy wasn’t always in Stagmeier’s heart — entrepreneurship was.
She grew up just two miles from Willow Branch in Stone Mountain, the middle of three daughters whose parents were serial entrepreneurs investing in everything from pig farms to electrical- and mechanical-supply companies (all three girls would eventually own businesses). After studying accounting at Georgia State University and passing the state’s CPA exam, she worked in banking and real estate for a decade, socking away her money and publishing a revered book in 1994, “Real Estate Asset Management: Executive Strategies in Profit Making.” Managing a portfolio of $500 million by the mid-1990s, she teamed with a German investor and started her own company to buy and manage workforce housing, including Willow Branch in 1996.  
Complexes with early versions of the afterschool program and stable rents stayed roughly 95 percent occupied, eliminating costly turnover and transiency, which drags down student performance. (What’s more, parents who knew where their children were after the final school bell could work longer hours, earning more rent money). A blighted apartment community in the northwestern suburb of Marietta provided Stagmeier’s “a-ha!” moment, she says, as she began to see how a single complex can drastically impact the schools it feeds.

Entrepreneur Marjy Stagmeier developed a unique model that combines housing, education and healthcare to revitalize struggling communities.

By 2014, Stagmeier had sold her other properties to focus on honing the Star-C model at Willow Branch. In order for the program to work, she says, the purchasing price of any new complex has to be less than $40,000 per unit, which allows rents to stay affordable and thus turnover low. (At Willow Branch, tenants pay an average of $615 a month.) She channels $3,000 monthly into the Star-C program, which employs three full-time people, with fundraising covering the rest of costs. Word has spread, and volunteers from throughout the region, primarily church groups and students, log nearly 8,000 hours at the complex each year.
Now, Star-C’s academic results are a particular source of pride, for both Stagmeier and the parents of the 300 kids under age 10 who call Willow Branch home.
As recently as 2013, neighboring Indian Creek Elementary School was the second worst-performing school in Georgia. Following a partnership with Star-C, the elementary has been named a “Platinum Performer” — the highest classification awarded by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement — three years running. Nearly 90 percent of students passed the Georgia Milestones assessment test last year and have average GPAs of 3.25.
“That’s impressive,” says Stagmeier, “considering English is new to most of these kids.”
In addition to the free education component, Star-C has partnered with a nearby health clinic to offer residents dentistry, primary care and OB-GYN services at $50 to $70 per visit. If residents are still unable to pay, the nonprofit will cover their visits out of its fundraising proceeds.
Another healthy facet of life at Willow Branch: a community gardening program, which costs residents just $20 a year (this covers the cost of deer-netting). In 40 tidy gardens that consume about an acre, Hispanic tenants grow peppers, Asian residents cultivate roselle hibiscus, and religiously significant marigolds are popular with just about everyone. Along with the recently erected fences that keep out the neighborhood’s gang members, the gardening initiative gives residents reason to be outside and has all but eliminated crime, Stagmeier says.
Statistics that paint an accurate picture of crime in the immediate area are tough to come by, as residents often don’t call police because of language barriers and mistrust. But hundreds of people — including what Stagmeier describes as “harsh gangs,” which twice attacked a security officer, periodically flashed guns on the property, and stole from residents — formerly cut through Willow Branch to access a commercial district. “That’s all gone away since we put up the fence and started the gardens,” says Stagmeier. “Grandma in her garden won’t put up with that type of behavior.”
Savings on food, healthcare and rent have had cumulative, positive effects. Of the 39 families who moved out of Willow Branch last year, 16 were able to buy their first homes.
“That’s going from poverty to mobility,” Stagmeier says. “That’s what we do here.”
Marjy Stagmeier (left, in purple) with a group of Willow Branch residents.


As of this writing, Stagmeier was under contract with her second property for the Star-C model, a 244-unit community called Summerdale Commons just south of downtown Atlanta. It’s among the city’s top 10 worst complexes for crime, and it’s next door to another low-performing elementary school, she says.
Through the course of 170 meetings with everyone from homeless people to Atlanta’s mayor, Stagmeier has grown determined to work within Atlanta city limits, where government is supportive of her efforts and an inclusionary zoning ordinance was adopted in January to boost workforce housing. It’s also where Stagmeier lives in tony Ansley Park with her husband, John.
“We’re buying the roughest properties that have the highest crime that the neighbors are sick of,” she says. “Luckily, we’ve got the city behind us.”
Beyond Summerdale Commons, Stagmeier is eyeing three or four other properties. She’s also starting to recruit younger partners, in hopes of breathing more life into the nonprofits and, eventually, bringing her successes to a national level.
“I think her model will catch on the more that elected officials and compassionate investor groups learn about it,” says Terry, the Clarkston mayor.
Back at Willow Branch, a group of teens from the philanthropy club at Atlanta’s Benjamin Franklin Academy arrives one afternoon. They’ve collected four boxes of books representing a variety of cultures.
The high schoolers are eager to read to the kids. But first, Stagmeier has a question. “Do you know what’s going on here?”
Blank faces.  
“Do you want me to tell you what’s going on here?” she asks. “What the goal is?”  
She launches into a primer, pointing to the community garden and the filled-in pool, which now serves as a mini soccer arena. And she mentions the part about families buying their own homes, essentially graduating toward their American dream.         
“That’s incredible,” says sophomore Zach Arais. “I had no idea about the level of this project. I mean, it’s really impressive.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Yesler Apartments in Seattle is operated by Catholic Community Services, not the Seattle Housing Authority. We regret the error.

Bridging the Language Barrier Between Patient and Doctor

Lina Guerra used to spend her nights pouring drinks for passengers at Boston’s Logan Airport. The menial job left the 36-year-old single mother of a newborn feeling like she hadn’t realized the economic potential her parents gifted her when they left Colombia in the late 1980s.
During her prolonged hunt for a salaried position, Guerra came across an ad that seemed too perfect. “There’s no way I’ll get it,” she thought. Despite possessing the required language skills, she hesitated, right up to the deadline, before applying. A few weeks later, Guerra received a call to come in for an interview.
The position? A medical interpreter fellowship with Found in Translation, a nonprofit that trains low-income, bilingual immigrant women and places them in jobs at prestigious hospitals in the Boston area. Launched by Maria Vertkin (a Russian immigrant herself) in 2011, the organization has recruited 158 participants that collectively speak about a dozen languages, including Spanish, Haitian Creole, Arabic and Portuguese.
During more than 100 hours of training, fellows learn the rigors of medical interpreting. “You have to be very accurate,” Guerra says. A loose, informal translation could lead to the wrong diagnosis. When a patient describes a stomachache, for example, the interpreter must possess the vocabulary, in both languages, to translate “tummy,” “belly,” “stomach” or “abdomen” to convey the right connotation. On top of that, Guerra adds, interpreters must know the slang for each culture.
Interpreters act as cultural brokers. During one prep class, for instance, trainees debated the appropriate gender for a gynecologist or urologist. (Arabic speakers believed patients should see a physician of the same gender; those of Spanish heritage believed doing so would imply homosexuality.)
They also learn to advocate, and in a few rare instances, interrupt on the patient’s behalf. “There’s implicit bias and prejudice,” Vertkin says. “It’s the interpreter’s job to say, ‘Wait a minute, are there other options? You’re only offering the cheapest metal filling.’ That might be because of who the patient is and the assumption that they’re poor. The interpreter has the obligation then to intervene.”
With the new commander-in-chief calling for a border wall, mass deportations and an unprecedented Muslim travel ban, times are tough for immigrants like Guerra, who arrived in this country at age 8. She has a message for President Trump: “Please know in your heart that the majority of non-English speaking people have an even greater desire to be American than some people that were born in this country. They are so proud to be in America, regardless of the struggles that they are currently facing,” Guerra says, pleading, “Give them a chance.”
Employed by a translation agency, Guerra makes her living speaking for foreigners. Perhaps it’s time we all starting listening to what she has to say.
MORE: What to Do During ICE Stops

What to Do During ICE Stops

President Trump and the Department of Homeland Security are strictly enforcing immigration laws. Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly recently said, “There will be no, repeat no, mass deportations,” but by law, anyone living in the United States without permission, is at risk. Even a clean criminal record doesn’t ensure protection.
“There’s effectively no prioritization,” says Andre Segura, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants Rights Project. “We’re going to see people who would not normally be detained, be detained.” Only DACA recipients (illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and were given work permits under a 2012 Obama administration program) are excluded.
If you witness immigration officers questioning someone, or are stopped yourself, here’s what to do:
Additional reporting by Hallie Steiner

On #DayWithoutImmigrants, Check Out These NationSwell Must-Reads

Ask the Experts: Why Should Americans Care About Employing Immigrants?
Those in the know explain why hiring skilled, educated newcomers helps the country’s economy and the fabric of society in ways you might not have considered.
The American Dream Isn’t Dead. This Is How Immigrant Families Are Achieving It
Vocational training comes full circle at the Instituto del Progreso Latino, where MacArthur Fellow Juan Salgado pioneers a sustainable approach to rising above poverty.
How Nashville Is Training a New Generation of Leaders from Its Immigrant Communities, Citiscope
A free, one-of-a-kind leadership program gives new Americans insight into how local government works.

Meet the Couple Caring for Uninsured Families

New York City has long been the final destination for incoming immigrant families. Today, that population totals over 3 million people, and nearly 35 percent of them lack access to health insurance. Now one married couple is aiming to provide these families with the pediatric care they otherwise can’t afford.
Dynasty Pediatrics is a private practice with an office in Brooklyn’s Kensington neighborhood. Its founders, Dr. Marina Klotsman and her husband, Schmeil, provide affordable healthcare services for the borough’s newly settled immigrants, many of whom lack health insurance. As a result, the Klotsmans often end up waiving co-pays and other medical fees for those families struggling to make ends meet.
“We put a lot of effort, a lot of time, a lot of our own energy into this place,” says Marina. “It’s not even for business; it’s for the feelings we have. We want to help everybody.”
Schmeil agrees, adding, “The money’s not the main subject in this office.”
Dynasty Pediatrics is open Sunday through Friday, with hours late into the evening. The goal is to make it easier for working-class parents — many of whom support family members living outside the US — to bring in their children without disrupting their work schedules. The Klotsmans also help families explore insurance plans as well as local services like NYC’s universal pre-K program.
That sense of duty goes back to the husband-and-wife team’s own journey to the US from Kyrgyzstan. Schmeil left his home country in 1989 during the dissolution of the USSR, a period he remembers as marred by “chaos.” Marina left eight years later, in 1997, to further her medical career. They would eventually meet in Brooklyn through Marina’s uncle and marry soon after.
Learn more about the Klotsmans’ passion for helping others in the video above.

Tapping Immigrants to Become City Leaders, Using Design to Combat Street Pollution and More

Nashville Is Training a New Generation of Leaders from Its Immigrant Communities, Citiscope
In 2009, a Nashville councilman proposed a ballot initiative to prevent bureaucrats from speaking anything but English. Voters defeated the nativist measure, and “Nashville has not looked back,” the former mayor says. Today, the Southern city picks leaders from immigrant communities and introduces them to various government institutions like the courts, schools and water treatment plants, in the hopes that some will one day run for local office.

Street Furniture that Helps Fight Pollution and Save Lives, Co.Design
Living near one of New York City’s ambulance stations could, paradoxically, be detrimental to your health. While parked, the emergency response vehicles leave their engine running nonstop to power their radios and refrigerate medicines, coughing out exhaust for hours. An energy startup has been tapped to place slender, metallic charging pedestals throughout the city, allowing ambulances to run their battery through an automatically retractable plug, while decreasing street pollution at the same time.

F.D.A. Agrees to New Trials for Ecstasy as Relief for PTSD Patients, The New York Times
For an average of 17 years each, a group of South Carolina patients — military veterans, rape survivors and emergency responders — had tried to get over their post-traumatic stress disorder. Neither prescription drugs nor psychotherapy worked. But the recreational drug MDMA, or Ecstasy, did. Now, a clinical trial of at least 230 patients will test whether the illegal party pill should be classified as a medical cure for the symptoms of trauma.

This Nonprofit’s Goal? To Be the Yelp of Social Services

In East Palo Alto, a short drive from the headquarters of Google, Sun Microsystems and Facebook, a high school student without housing was contemplating where she’d sleep that night. The girl asked Rey Faustino, then an employee at the nonprofit BUILD, an incubator for low-income entrepreneurs, to help her find a shelter. Faustino located a dusty binder whose plastic sleeves held flyers about social services. But most of the information proved outdated or incorrect, he recalls. “It took us all night to find one shelter for a student and her family, and it took us weeks to get them into stable, affordable housing.” The support net, it became clear at that moment, had holes.
Social services, provided by charities and government, largely haven’t kept pace in today’s hyper-connected world. Most nonprofits have websites, but that doesn’t mean they’re SEO-friendly or that they’ve been updated recently. The absence of quality information online forces struggling families to rely on what they hear through word of mouth. That leaves the most disconnected individuals in the most vulnerable position.
“How do you find the best Indian restaurant in San Francisco? By using Yelp or Google,” Faustino says. “We’re doing all these amazing things to advance life for the middle class, but we weren’t using any of these technologies and assets for the most vulnerable families. I thought that was ridiculous, and I wanted to do something about it.”
Five years ago, Faustino founded One Degree. A comprehensive directory of the 20,000 social service resources in the Bay Area, the online database is searchable by location and proximity to public transit, language and entry requirements, like age, household size and income. The platform works on both computers and smartphones, making it easy for most people to connect. (Surveys by Pew Research Center have found that nearly two-thirds of Americans own smartphones, and the number is expected to keep rising; for 13 percent of low-income earners, the devices are their primary way to access the internet.) Once a user has identified a match, One Degree helps with the intake process, such as scheduling an appointment or filling out an online application. That extra info might save someone a bus trip to the charity’s doors, only to find they’re not accepting applications.
So far, One Degree has connected more than 140,000 people in the Bay Area to the right agency. After a national competition, Faustino’s work was recognized by Inherent Group in November, when they presented the organization with the $50,000 grand prize at NationSwell’s Summit on Solutions. (Jukay Hsu, the founder and executive director of Coalition for Queens, which trains a diverse and underserved population of NYC residents to be app and web developers, snagged the second-place $25,000 prize.)

Read more about the Inherent Prize and the 2016 finalists

Faustino knows firsthand about the necessity of social services — and the difficulty of finding the right ones. As new immigrants from the Philippines, his parents worked multiple jobs to afford the rent in Los Angeles: his mother as a hospital administrator and, later, a nurse; his father, a salesman at Home Depot and a handyman on the weekends. They got the extra support they needed with naturalization papers, healthcare and summer school from local charities. Faustino became his family’s connector, finding out about programs from his teachers and translating for his parents. One Degree, he says, is the program he wishes he had as a kid.
Like Yelp, Faustino envisions that One Degree’s users will rate nonprofits and write about their experience. While that feature sounds simple enough to people who are used to streaming movies on Netflix and reading books on their tablets, it would upend the way nonprofits work. Forced to reckon with users’ commentary, a nonprofit might be more responsive to community needs, Faustino believes.
And, in a further boon to efficiency, collecting search data might give a more accurate picture of how disparate parts of the sector should fit together, he adds. Currently, many cities and counties focus only on the constituents who live within a district’s limits. But One Degree might register a fuller scope, picking up on the need for services where people work or where they hope to move. In the Bay Area, for example, you might see San Francisco residents looking for cheaper housing in nearby Contra Costa or childcare in San Mateo where their kids go to school. That could allow government agencies to better allocate services where they’re actually needed.
“In the past, nonprofit social services were transactional. You go to a place, receive a service and then go home,” explains Faustino. “Now we have the opportunity to make it more relationship-based, to see it not as a one-time change to a person’s life, but as a whole constellation or web of services” that a person has at their disposal.
In fact, these groups find that interconnectedness so valuable that one-fifth of One Degree’s revenue comes from social-service organizations that pay Faustino’s team for sophisticated referral tools. Some of these assessment tools direct users to other resources, like to a hospital for a screening of diabetes risk; other tools track where else clients go for help, enabling a caseworker to see, for instance, that her client visited a food bank, shelter and workforce development program. “No one agency can do everything for every client, so they’re always relying on other resources to help,” Faustino says. “One Degree makes it easy for them to access those other resources and stay organized.”
One Degree’s model could change the way we think about impact. Because social-service recipients get help from multiple organizations — a dozen, on average, Faustino says — the reviews could establish which programs actually helped, as described from the user’s perspective. “A lot of impact reports and messaging says that so-and-so went to a shelter, and we changed her life. Part of that is true — the shelter did help — but it wasn’t the only thing,” he says. “We take away a person’s agency when we say it’s just the organization that helped. She’s the one who made the choice, the one who went and found the shelter and other services. Funding streams are very competitive, and organizations have to paint themselves as the savior. But I fundamentally believe that holds back the nonprofit sector from seeing huge impact in our communities.”
Traditionally, social-service nonprofits have lagged behind in these high-tech times, but with One Degree, they’re finally starting to catch up.

The Journey of an Idea: This Entrepreneur Took a Cross-Country Trip to Fine-Tune His Higher Education Gamechanger

Seated in a 1930s Pullman train car, Phillip Ellison carved a broad arc across the country: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Milwaukee, Detroit. Ellison had no final endpoint toward which his locomotive was rushing: he was simply riding the rails, as part of the Millennial Trains Project (MTP), a nonprofit venture with Comcast NBCUniversal, a lead partner of the journey. Along with 25 other young adults, he was making a nine-day, transcontinental trek this August to open himself to new ideas for ULink, his new startup that’s in the works. “[MTP is promoting] American innovation, entrepreneurship and trans-regional understanding of the United States, by allowing people doing social impact to come together,” Ellison says.
In the early stages of developing a tech platform to assist community college students, Ellison wanted to spend the 3,100-mile journey homing in on his product’s capabilities and its growth potential, while discovering what other young people were doing in their hometowns. As the American West rushed by his window, he engaged the other social entrepreneurs and rising nonprofit leaders in conversation: Where were they all headed, and how could they help each other get there?
Onboard MTP, Ellison hammered out ideas for ULink, a website that will help community college students engage with on-campus resources (such as advising sessions to map out the credits that four-year colleges require or counseling to help deal with tough emotional situations) and successfully transfer to a four-year university. Ellison, a one-time dropout wrapping up his bachelor’s degree at Tufts University in Massachusetts, wanted to hear what had helped his peers navigate their undergraduate experience and whether community college counselors and transfer advisors, faculty members, students and IT programmers in each of MTP’s five stops would be open to using the platform. Aided by their insights, he’s planning to launch a beta pilot of the website within the next year at a community college in the Boston area.
“Community college is often a head-down experience. Students do not know what’s happening on campus, and they’re not accessing resources until it’s too late,” Ellison explains to NationSwell. On the administrative side, counseling “processes are not quite modernized, digital or up to date. You see the limitations of a human being in terms of resources.” ULink is still in beta development, but once launched, it will help counselors manage their students, see who’s coming in and who’s been out of touch and send text message check-ins through a mobile app — allowing them to reach more students all at once.
Ellison knows about the necessity of college advising more acutely than most. He was forced to leave Penn State University prematurely due to a lack of financial aid. “That was one of the darkest times in my life, to be frank,” he says. Like many students arriving at four-year institutions, he says he didn’t fully comprehend higher education’s blockbuster price tag, even at a public school. Looking back, he wishes he had known more about the financial aspects of college. (For instance, public schools charge more to out-of-state residents, and with rare exception, student loans stick with most people even after a declaration of bankruptcy.) Constantly worrying about his bank accounts, Ellison’s grades fell precipitously. He dropped out and returned home to East Harlem.
That’s not to say Ellison was giving up. “I decided to go home and spend some time thinking about what I was going to do, to right the ship basically,” he explains. Almost immediately, he went to work as a manual laborer. Alongside middle-aged underrepresented workers, the teenager manned demolition projects in Brooklyn and moved corporate furniture in Manhattan. No boss seemed to value worker contributions at those temp jobs, he noticed. They didn’t provide healthcare benefits, and they offered no job security — a daily reality for millions of Americans who never obtained a college degree, he saw.
Eventually, Ellison was accepted to serve as an AmeriCorps member with City Year, assisting a green energy startup. (There, he met one of ULink’s current co-founders, Parisa Esmaili.) He leveraged that into a job at Citizen Schools, a nonprofit that provides extra hours of instruction at public middle schools. He also worked on campaigns for Obama’s reelection and a failed primary bid by Reshma Saujani (the founder of Girls Who Code) to be New York City’s public advocate. In retrospect, he says the series of jobs taught him leadership: by watching how a founder made tough decisions, by practicing at the front of a classroom and by trying to elect principled leaders.
In his off-hours, Ellison started attending classes at Eugenio María de Hostos Community College, one of the City University of New York schools near the Bronx’s Grand Concourse. Once again, working families surrounded him. He saw many of his classmates pulled away from their education by the need to get a job to pay for their kids. Others, closer to him in age, didn’t seem to know how to navigate the school’s bureaucracy. On his second attempt at higher education, Ellison realized that community college students don’t know what four-year universities are looking for in applicants and understaffed counseling departments couldn’t provide all the help needed. “I saw folks stopping sometimes, because they didn’t know what their end goal could be or how to get to that point,” he says. “The mentors were not checking in on them. It’s not a seamless transition.”
After a long hiatus from a four-year college, Ellison returned to school at Tufts last year. At times, he feels out of place, coming from the South Bronx to a bucolic research institution with a billion-dollar endowment that predates the Civil War. There, he lived with Jubril Lawal (a former classmate at Hostos and current co-founder of ULink), and together they translated their own experience negotiating educational barriers into ULink’s platform. ”By merging tech and human interactions in a strategic way,” says Ellison, who regularly folds business school lingo into ULink’s sales pitch, “our premise is that closing some of the advising and engagement gaps will promote completion and persistence and improve the overall student experience.” Where Ellison once felt disconnected, he hopes the app will provide clarity and direction, those touch points that tie a person to a larger institution.
Through conversations with other train ride participants and with people at various city stops, Ellison deepened his understanding of the community college system. He asked why certain schools have off-the-charts transfer rates, while others are dropout factories. How can his platform make a student feel at home on a two-year commuter campus, in the same way that a student living in the dorms at a four-year institution participates in the school’s history and traditions? Will a few text messages be enough?
His cross-country sojourn confirmed that he’s asking the right questions. At a City College of San Francisco, he showed the school’s chief technology officer his beta product, and the administrator shared insights about the inadequacies of older education planning software and his decision-making calculus for new technology. Ellison speculated ULink may have just gained “a key adviser.” Back on the train, he discussed his ideas with his mentors and other social entrepreneurs. Fauzia Musa, from the design firm IDEO, reminded him that if students found some real value in the product and used it to solve their challenges, then colleges would quickly fall into line. Those “new understandings and unique opportunities for growth” proved vital to understanding what ULink could be.
Now it’s a matter of Ellison putting his answers into practice. The steaming train may have pulled into the final station, but his real journey is just beginning.
This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.
Homepage photo courtesy of Millennial Trains Project.

A Problematic Industry Joins the Climate Change Movement, Much-Needed Health Care Reaches the Latino Community and More

U.S. Agricultural Secretary Thinks Farmers Can Help Solve Global Warming, Scientific American
Those that work the land inflict some of the worst harm on it. But as a recent report reveals, members of the agriculture community — farmers, ranchers, foresters — are beginning to change their planet-damaging ways. As they reform what they grow and how they grow it means that farmers soon could cease being one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gas pollution.
Students Fill a Gap in Mental Health Care for Immigrants, NPR
For immigrants in need of mental health care, a lack of documentation or insurance often means illnesses remain untreated. Across the nation, understaffed health clinics and universities are joining forces to improve access to services for depression, anxiety and more. Through these partnerships, Master’s and Ph.D. students play a vital role in treating mental illness in the Latino community.
Vermont Becomes First State to Require Drug Makers to Justify Price Hikes, STAT News
Last year, the pharmaceutical industry got a bad rap when Martin Shkreli hiked up the price of an HIV drug by more than 5,000 percent. In response, the Green Mountain state passed a law holding drug companies accountable for price increases. Could this move stunt medical innovation or will it protect citizens from unreasonable costs?

Meet the Doctors Building an Innovative, Holistic Bridge to Healthy Living

What if you were able to cure a disease before someone even caught it? Now imagine doing that on a larger scale — for an entire community of people who lack access to medical resources, including basic supplies like bandages for even the most minor of injuries. What would health care look like if you could eliminate the problem at its source?
Dr. Steve Larson, co-founder of the nonprofit medical clinic Puentes de Salud, or “Bridges of Health,” believes he has the answer. For the past decade, he’s been using a holistic approach that includes medical care, education classes and social services to solve the healthcare woes of Philadelphia’s rapidly growing Latino immigrant population. “The answer is not waiting for the next trauma,” says Larson. “The answer is to keep it from ever happening.”
Watch the video above to see how Puentes de Salud partners with local health organizations, medical schools and private donors to provide its patients comprehensive treatment.