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U. of C.'s Uncommon Fund finances student projects, innovation

What do a greenhouse, a bell tower, a three-course gourmet dinner and cuddling have in common?

No, this isn't a riddle. These are the focuses of some of the projects led by students at the University of Chicago who recently won funding from the university's 2013 Uncommon Fund.

Twenty-four student-led groups were awarded money last week from a pool of more than $75,000 that made up this year's Uncommon Fund. The fund, which began in 2006, is managed entirely by students and uses money from the university's Student Activities Fee and the Dean's Fund for Student Life to finance innovative projects and initiatives proposed by students and other individuals affiliated with the university.

Fund adviser Brandon Kurzweg said winners are chosen based on a project's feasibility, campus impact, student interest and uncommonness. According to Uncommon Fund Chair Janet Xu, after applicants receive funding, they set up a bank account with the university's Office of Reynolds Club and Student Activities and are assigned a university staff adviser who dispenses advice and monitors how the money is used.

"If you have a cool idea, and none of the existing student organizations or other funding sources can help you execute the idea completely, the Uncommon Fund is your chance to make your vision a reality," said Xu, a junior majoring in sociology and public policy.

Luci Swim is one student whose project will go from dream to reality.

The 18-year-old freshman will use her grant to bring a "cuddle party" to campus, similar to those of the national nonprofit Cuddle Party, which brings together strangers to cuddle with one another in safe spaces. Swim got the idea shortly after she moved to Chicago from Kansas and found herself missing the physical affection from her parents and siblings.

"I haven't really come up with a strategy yet for making it not sound weird," Swim said. "But then again, there are some people who have really loved the idea."

The $835 Swim received will be primarily used to pay a facilitator who will make sure participants are observing the cuddle party rules--for example, people must ask permission and receive a verbal "yes" before they touch anyone--during the event.

Other projects will require a lot more than blankets and spooning strangers.

Michael Tartell, a 21-year-old senior and biology major, plans to use part of his group's $2,200 to replace the ropes and pulleys that control the bells in the university's Mitchell Tower.

Tartell and several other students have been taking Saturday classes at the tower to practice the art of English Change Ringing--a unique style of ringing where bells mounted on a wheel are controlled by individuals pulling attached ropes. He and his fellow bell-ringers love it so much they want to use the remainder of the funds to host a Ringing Weekend to bring in professional ringers from all over the country to teach students how to ring.

Tartell doesn't consider his passion for bell-ringing anything out of the ordinary.

"This is the University of Chicago, so believe me when I tell you that there are people who do much stranger things than bell ringing," he said. "A bunch of people we've talked to have said, ‘That sounds really cool, can I try it?' and we say, ‘Yes! Come ring with us!' So we're recruiting."

Other winning projects have the potential to benefit not just the university--but also the university's nearby neighborhoods. The fund awarded $5,000 to UChicaGrow, an initiative to establish a greenhouse in food desert Washington Park, one of the most impoverished regions in the city. Student volunteers will help grow fresh produce at the greenhouse and create a business model to decrease the cost of local produce.

Sophomores Leslie Glotzer and Sadie Bergen, both 19, said the award shows that the university is trying to take a bigger, more active role in the community.

"Going to school at UChicago makes it really clear that the resources we have are really unique in this area," Glotzer said. "When you walk outside of campus, it is clear there is a [resource] divide."

Other projects selected to receive funding this year include the dotcross Coffee project, which will fund coffee tasting sessions and classes about coffee brewing and appreciation taught by baristas; the Seminary Co-op Documentary Project, an effort to produce a book and short video about the history of the beloved neighborhood bookstore; and a project to bring a vending machine stocked entirely with Asian snack products to campus.

Robert Lipman, 19-year-old lead chef and pioneer of University of Chicago's underground restaurant scene, first found out he had won $10,000 from the fund through a Facebook message: "Congrats on the funding, man."

The UChicago freshman plans to use the money to throw "the biggest party [the] university has ever seen"-- a three-course dinner for 1,000 UChicago students modeled after flash mob dinners that have been held in New York City, Barcelona, Paris--even Chicago.

"One person said I should really make this a ‘World's Fair'-type event and try to get a Ferris wheel on campus," Lipman said. "I'm just a freshman, so if anyone has any ideas on how to get a Ferris wheel, please help!"

Lipman said the grant will defray most of the costs of the food in order to make the dinner's tickets cheaper for students. He is tentatively planning to hold the dinner in the university's quad in June.

Fourth-year math major and vice president for Student Government Doug Everson, who serves on the Uncommon Fund Board, said even though the board tries to fund projects with the potential for success, students have a lot to gain when projects don't work out.

"Students learn so much about how the real world operates through this," said Everson, 22. "When projects aren't successful, they have a lot to benefit because people learn through failings."

Find all the winners at Uncommon Fund's website.

Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.

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