Cosmic Writers: A Look Inside


In 2021 Rowana Miller, a Sociology major who would later graduate from the University of Pennsylvania in 2022, had an idea to create a nonprofit that would provide children in underprivileged neighborhoods with a quality writing education.


With help from her friend Manoj Simha, also a 2022 UPenn graduate, Rowana did just that. She created Cosmic Writers, which went on to win the 2022 University of Pennsylvania Presidential Prize, giving the nonprofit enough money to begin working towards its goal.


In the past year, Cosmic Writers has helped hundreds of kids in 30 different states, 76% of which report higher confidence in their writing. As a recognition of its achievement, Cosmic Writers won the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Award for Education Entrepreneurship.


I first learned about this amazing writing program last September, and in November I became a volunteer, helping this non-profit get the money it needs to exist. Last month, I had the opportunity to interview two people who are at the heart of Cosmic Writers: Executive Director Rowana Miller and Director of Finance Manoj Simha.


The Harriton Banner (THB): Why did you choose to attend the University of Pennsylvania?


Executive Director Rowana Miller (RM): I came to Penn for the Kelly Writers House, an on-campus hub for creative writing. I wanted to find a writing community in college, and KWH epitomized that. I also knew that I was planning to study the social sciences, so the blend of tight-knit writing space and larger research university checked all my boxes and then some.


Director of Finance Manoj Simha (MS): I only applied to one university in my college hunt. I knew throughout high school that I wanted to attend business school and equip myself with the toolkit needed to build something meaningful. There was no better place to learn those skills than the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Wharton had the right balance of theory,  world-class professors doing innovative research, and practicality. In addition, I knew I would be surrounded by equally ambitious and inspiring peers.  


THB: What is the President’s Engagement Prize? Why did you apply?


MS: The President’s Engagement Prize is an award given to select graduating seniors at Penn which provides funding to found or grow a social impact venture. It is the largest prize of its kind granted by any university in the US and a core part of Penn’s effort to give back to Philadelphia and the world.    


RM: Manoj and I were already in the process of incorporating our non-profit, Cosmic Writers, before we decided to apply for the Engagement Prize, but we recognized that the award would give us the seed funding necessary to expand rapidly and maximize our impact. It would also allow Manoj and I to work on Cosmic Writers full time after graduation!


THB: What inspired you to create/join Cosmic Writers?


RM: As a child, I loved creative writing. I wrote my first novel in middle school. Even though I grew up in New York City, where there’s an amazing arts community and tons of resources for education, I didn’t have formal support for my writing until I got to college. Because of this, I’ve always been aware of the need for creative writing education for kids. Then, during the first summer of the pandemic, I started a virtual creative writing camp as a way to provide engagement when kids couldn’t leave their homes. The camp received 150 signups the first day we opened them. Many parents and teachers told me that this was the first time they had encountered free, accessible creative writing education; everything already available was either prohibitively expensive or located in very narrowly-focused geographic locations. Coupled with my experience as a child, I saw the need to start a larger organization that would meet the demand for creative writing for kids around the country and beyond.


MS: When I immigrated to the U.S. as a kid, I had trouble adjusting to the language and culture. I got help from my librarian, who helped me learn how to speak, read and write in English. In addition to language, she gave me confidence, and hope that I could do great things in America, despite my language barrier. When Rowana shared her idea of Cosmic Writers, and asked me to be her partner, I realized how much this program could have helped me had it been around 10 years ago.


THB: How hard is it to run a nonprofit with little resources?


RM: So, so hard! We keep encountering a chicken-and-egg situation in which we would be able to greatly expand our impact if we had more resources, but if we spend the necessary time fundraising, this takes away from our ability to make impact in the short term. As Executive Director, I divide my time between programs and fundraising, so I’m constantly making the calculation of which use of my time will be more impactful in every given circumstance. But, slowly, we’re growing a base of philanthropists who believe in the power of creative writing education to transform literacy. And I have high hopes that we’ll be able to push through this low-resource startup phase and become the high-impact, high-resource nonprofit that I know we have the potential to be.


MS: It is impossible to be an organization that makes a long-term impact in any community without a focus on sustainability. Cosmic Writers will never compromise on two metrics related to our finances: ensuring that all our programs are free for all children and ensuring that our instructors are paid fairly for their work. The key issue then is to uphold this mission while being fiscally responsible. This is why a full-cycle donor outreach program, which Daniel Brownstein Angeli has been invaluable in helping manage, and consistent grant funding is vital to the health of most small nonprofits. Long story short, our donors make our impact possible!


THB: What kind of programs does Cosmic Writers have for high school students? What about younger siblings?


RM: We run virtual workshops for high schoolers about once a month, offered through Discord. Right now, we happen to be running two virtual workshops — one on Dungeons-and-Dragons-inspired fantasy writing, and one on identity exploration via creative nonfiction. 


We’re also offering a virtual creative writing intensive for high schoolers over the summer, as well as a virtual creative writing camp for kids in grades 3–8. In addition to these virtual opportunities, we work with on-the-ground partners in Philly and NYC to put on in-person workshops, like an upcoming Writing for Impact conference for high schoolers and a nature-writing camp in FDR Park. 


We also provide personalized one-on-one writing tutoring via our Cosmic Coaching program, especially useful as you approach upper level English classes or write your college applications.


MS: …Our flagship virtual summer camp Word Camp… will [give students] the opportunity to dig deep into creative writing topics of their choice in our proprietary workshops taught by highly trained instructors from incredible schools like Penn.  


THB: Beyond participating in the programs, is there any way for students at Harriton to get involved? 


MS: Yes, there are so many to get involved with Cosmic Writers! One of the most exciting is applying to be a Junior Instructor for our virtual or in-person programs. Our Junior Instructors will work directly with the Cosmic Writers leadership team and the main Instructors to bring our workshops to life. These roles are paid and we will also provide recommendation letters for college applications or other internships. We love seeing students go from participant to Junior Instructor to Instructor! 


THB: How can we support this cause? 


RM: Donate, volunteer, participate in our programs! If you’re passionate about writing, literacy, and/or youth, there’s a place for you in our community.