In 2021, Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2) established the SP2 Social Justice Scholars Program, which cultivates a distinct and impactful learning environment for cohorts of students of color while eliminating the financial burden of a graduate education at Penn. The Program offers full-tuition scholarships and specialized, rigorous academic programming for incoming students—with a preference for those graduating from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs). In early Spring 2021, the first cohort of three SP2 Social Justice Scholars was selected and announced. These exceptional students— Gianni Morsell, Paloma Brand, and Skye Horbrook— bring unique and varied backgrounds and passions to SP2 and are ardently eager to continue their pursuits of social innovation, impact, and justice— within the Penn community and beyond.
Morsell, who is completing a degree in political science at Morgan State University in Baltimore, initially planned to become a lawyer. After a number of internships, including with the Maryland General Assembly and the office of US Senator Ben Cardin, she worked in a law office, followed by her current internship with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. But it was a project she became involved in during her sophomore year with her university’s Student Government Association (SGA) that led Morsell to determine that she wanted a more active role in public service.
Morsell and others noticed that many students, staff, and faculty at their institution were dealing with food insecurity, both on and off campus. They came up with a plan to develop an on-campus food pantry and assembled a committee that included Morsell, another SGA student, the university’s Vice President of Student Affairs, and members of his staff.
“We worked together to develop the Morgan State Food Pantry, which we later renamed to the Morgan State Food Resource Center because we noticed how ‘food pantry’ has a negative connotation—it’s a dreary place where people go to get prepackaged food, and they don’t really get to pick out what they want all of the time,” Morsell said. “We wanted the Food Resource Center to be more innovative— a place where students can come get what they need and feel comfortable going, and also get the education that they need in terms of SNAP, food stamps, filing for unemployment, how to plan a meal on a budget, food demonstrations, and how to plan a meal with little to no resources.”
“We’re all in this together— I’ve experienced being food insecure on campus, and many students have felt that at some point in time,” she added. “Being a part of the Food Resource Center guided my path in what I wanted to do.”
Morsell, who is entering SP2’s Nonprofit Leadership (NPL) program in the Fall, found out about the SP2 Social Justice Scholars Program through one of her professors. She had almost completed her graduate school applications by that point, but the Program appealed to her for a number of key reasons.
“What really stood out to me about SP2 was that they dedicate a lot of their resources to issues faced in the African American community, and you don’t see that in a lot of other college campuses,” she shared. “They also have the Leadership Practicum, and that was really important to me. When you learn something in the classroom and are able to apply it to real life and in a workspace, that’s really going to help you, academically and professionally.”
“With the NPL program in particular, I liked that I would be connected with a nonprofit organization, so I would learn more about nonprofit leadership and helping the African American community in the same vein. When I was looking through graduate programs and sending applications, I didn’t see anything like this. UPenn’s program is so unique that I knew I had to be a part of it.”
Morsell views her time as a Scholar as a clear continuation of working on the social justice issues that matter most to her.
“Food insecurity in the African American community is really important to me because we should all be granted the same opportunities. It’s very dear to my heart because I’ve experienced it myself, and my family members have experienced it. It doesn’t just impact college students—it impacts the surrounding community, as well. No student, no parent, no child should go hungry—especially when we have so many resources,” she continued. “There’s always more work that needs to be done, and that’s what I want to do as a Social Justice Scholar— make sure that people get the resources they need, especially in the African American community.”
Brand, a fellow incoming Social Justice Scholar, completed her undergraduate studies in criminology and criminal justice at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio. Brand originally envisioned going into the law enforcement field, but became more drawn to social theories and criminal theories— particularly Robert Agnew’s strain theory, which states that sources of strain in society increase the likelihood of crime. Brand completed an internship with the Child Support division of her local Attorney General’s office before graduating in 2019.
“When I was looking for jobs, most were correctional jobs at juvenile prisons and things like that. It wasn’t really my taste—I had volunteered before at a halfway house for juveniles who had been to prison, and I liked volunteering with them, but the environment was too correctional. I wanted to be in more of a helpful position, so I started working at a shelter for kids in foster care called St. PJ’s, and worked there for about a year,” Brand said. “I didn’t know much about foster care before that, but I learned a lot there about children in foster care and became really invested in that population, so I started pursuing a career in that and became a case manager at a child placing agency called A World for Children, which is where I work currently.”
She originally applied to Penn’s Master of Science in Criminology program, but deferred a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While researching the program further, Brand came upon SP2’s Master of Social Work (MSW)/MS in Criminology dual degree program.
“I was leaning more toward the social work route anyway, so I thought that would be a really good fit for me, and that’s why I applied,” she explained. “I’m excited to connect with people who are also interested in social justice and learning about more ways to promote social justice, because I’ve mainly been on the volunteering end. I haven’t had any experience with starting organizations or being involved in grassroots organizations, so it will be interesting to learn more about how to participate in a more active way.”
Brand, who previously volunteered with groups such as the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, which helps immigrants who are seeking asylum, looks forward to volunteering with SP2 and Penn-affiliated organizations in Philadelphia, particularly those focused on child welfare.
“I’m especially interested in vulnerable populations of children, such as children in foster care and children who are at risk, in poverty, children of immigrants—all of that is in the same realm, as well as juvenile justice, which also ties into child welfare and how they’re correlated. I’m interested in that, as well as immigration, and helping immigrants be able to live here more comfortably,” she said. “I’m looking forward to connecting with organizations on campus and I’m interested in how Penn can help me gain the tools to help those populations.”
Horbrook, also in the inaugural Program cohort, graduated with a degree in computer science from Bowie State University. As she shared, attending an HBCU was valuable, as she was able to learn with a community of students with similar backgrounds and cultural experiences. She describes her professional focus as advancing social impact through innovation and community engagement.
“Connecting with communities has been influential toward my career choices. I have volunteered with organizations focused in disaster management and digital equity for people of color,” she said. “I completed a service term in AmeriCorps NCCC FEMA Corps with the American Red Cross and FEMA in multiple locations across the country. I have also worked in tech-related roles at two local nonprofits in southern New Jersey.”
Horbrook, who will be entering the Master of Science in Social Policy + Data Analytics program, was drawn to SP2 both in terms of the School’s mission, and the social change-oriented skills and knowledge offered in the MSSP+DA curriculum.
“SP2 appealed to me as an institution that is invested in developing students that would be pillars of change in their communities. The MSSP + DA program stood out to me as an opportunity to grow as a public interest technologist,” she said. “The curriculum focuses on policy analysis, research, and evaluation skills through data processing techniques, which I value considerably. I aspire to bridge policy and data together and this program is a great fit for me as I advance in my career.”
During her time as a Social Justice Scholar and SP2 student, Horbrook looks forward to enriching learning experience in terms of stimulating class discussions and skill development alike, a supportive community of students and faculty, and building on the connections that she makes at SP2.
“The social justice topics that drive me the most are digital equity, education, urban development, and disaster management,” Horbrook said. “To me, a critical part of being a Social Justice Scholar is understanding the value of connecting with communities. Through these connections, I can uplift the stories of these communities and work with them to cultivate growth.”
Over the longer term, the SP2 Social Justice Scholars Program aims to expand its recipient pool each year and fund graduate educations for 12 students over the next five years. With dedicated and visionary students like Morsell, Brand, and Horbrook demonstrating the wide-ranging impact that the Program can have, the SP2 community—and society at large—can only stand to benefit from having more Social Justice Scholars advancing their skills and education in order to tackle the pressing social issues they care about most.