Can Universities Be Central to World Change?
A few days ago, I was at a luncheon. I was with a chancellor of a university. Knowing that I would be speaking about this today, I couldn’t resist asking, “What is the future of higher education?”
The chancellor’s response did not surprise me. It echoed the answers I heard from friends and colleagues who said, “Universities cost too much. Access has to improve,” or my favorite one, “Have you seen the documentary Ivory Tower?”
Without minimizing the importance of all these issues, what surprised me was not hearing more about the exciting things I see as a professor and dean.
At the university, I see all kinds of new learning and connecting to unleash the potential of students and people who want to change the world for the better.
What needs to change in the world? Change the fact that 2.7 billion people in the world live on less than $2 a day. What about the reality that one in nine citizens lack access to safe water or the fact that all the hottest years are happening in the 21st century?
Does anyone here doubt we need new kinds of talent to imagine and to create change? The good news is, universities all over the world are innovating like never before to prepare students to shape the world they want to be in, not just react to it or to do more of the same.
Let me share stories of changemakers transformed and transforming universities.
Fred was a sophomore student when we first met. He came to my office asking for advice on a project. Rolling my eyes, I thought, “Oh boy. I hope he’s not going to ask how he’s going to get an A.” When we met, I couldn’t help getting curious. “How did you go from Ghana to a university in California?”
Fred grew up poor in a rural village in Northern Ghana. He learned to read and write in an improvised classroom under a mango tree. Under that mango tree, he began to dream of one day attending a university.
Years went by and Fred got accepted at the University of Ghana. However, there was no family money. Fred decided to move to the capital city of Accra, where he was forced to live on the streets and survive by selling trinkets.
One day, Fred connected with a group of students participating in a study abroad program, Semester at Sea. Students asked him for recommendations of places to have lunch, and they invited him to join them.
Sharing stories over lunch, they asked Fred, “Can you give us your Facebook page, your email address?” Fred had neither, but an ever resourceful Fred went immediately into an internet café, set those up, and began connecting with students from all over the world.
As he connected, he realized there was an opportunity in student tourism. He decided to create a business he named Can Do Land Tours. Foreign students visited Fred’s village and they stayed with his family and with his friends.
In that way, foreign students from all over the world began to get to know Ghanaian culture, through the eyes of the people in the village. They got an understanding of everyday life in rural Ghana, with all its richness and its deprivations.
The more students he met, Fred decided he didn’t want to just attend a university; he wanted to attend a university abroad. All the money he had saved was not enough.
In another corner of the world, a woman named Barbara from California had decided it was time for her to pursue her own global learning adventures. Her children were off to college. Why not?
She enrolled in Semester at Sea. You can guess what’s coming. Barbara visited Fred’s village. For Barbara, visiting Fred’s village was the hardest experience and the most emotional experience of her entire four-month trip.
Barbara could not believe how much Fred had accomplished at 22, and in such a difficult circumstance. When Fred shared with Barbara his dream of attending a university abroad, Barbara listened and said, “My son, the world is full of possibilities.”
Now, imagine the phone conversation Barbara had with her husband Mike when she got back on the boat. “Hi, Sweetie. How are you? Is everything alright in California? I’m having a wonderful time here. Guess what? I just offered to pay for a young Ghanaian’s college education. Is that alright?”
Imagine Mike’s initial reaction. The call came at a moment where Mike thought he was done writing his last tuition check.
What did Fred do when he arrived at the university in California? Yes, he took courses. He made friends. He visited my office. He didn’t want to know if he could get an A in a project. He wanted to know how to improve his model of a sustainable network of village schools in Ghana and all over Africa.
He wanted to know how to present it really well at the university’s Social Innovation Challenge, a student competition for students seeking to translate ideas into action.
In the spring of 2015, Fred won $14,000 to add to the $22,000 he had already raised. He’s somewhere in the audience, and you’ll get to meet him.
Fred’s connection that led to a university in California speaking of connections with students from all over the world, with Barbara pursuing her own learning adventure, and with the universities creating new learning experiences in all places of the world. More connecting is in the future of higher education.
Now, let’s go to a different place. Let’s go to Detroit, where Veronika Scott was, not that long ago, a 20-year-old college student. Veronika was taking a course on product design.
One assignment required that students create a product to fulfill a real need. In Detroit, one out of 42 citizens are homeless. How can that not be a loud call to action? Veronika went on to create a very cool product. She created a coat for the homeless, which could serve as a sleeping bag.
However, a critically minded Veronika did not stop there. She asked herself, “Would they use it? Would the homeless want it?” She did not pursue answers to these questions in the classroom. She went out on the streets. She talked to people to figure the answers to these questions.
One day, a woman pulled her aside and said, “Honey, we don’t need coats. We need jobs.” What an a-ha moment for Veronika. Creating a cool product is not enough to transform people’s lives. It is the beginning.
Veronika went on to create an organization, The Empowerment Plan, hiring homeless women to manufacture the coat sleeping bags. Yes. Wow.
What started as an assignment created a really fascinating product, coat sleeping bag, and it evolved into a sustainable organization hiring one of our most vulnerable populations, homeless women.
How are we, at the universities, creating learning experiences for innovation and problem solving? Imagine that we invite you to the university. A professor asks, “What keeps you up at night when you think about issues in your community, in society, all over the world?”
She asks you to share with others like you. Then she asks the group, “Select one social problem to present to the students from all schools and departments as a discovery opportunity.”
Beyond analyzing the problem, which is what students traditionally do, students are encouraged to come up with new ideas, new approaches, new solutions, like Veronika’s coat.
This is the Changemaker Challenge we created at my university. Given that we are in California, San Diego, can you guess what this year’s challenge is? Water! Who in this audience is not thinking about water?
Was this part of your college experience? Not mine; probably not yours. In the future, we can build for universities. The ivory remains with the elephants and the tower opens its door and builds bridges for more to join.
Last year, I met Robi Damelin. She stayed at the university for two months as a Woman Peacemaker, a leader-in-residence program for extraordinary women who are working and transforming societies in conflict.
Robi became a peacemaker when her son, an Israeli soldier, was killed by a Palestinian sniper. Her immense lost, her grief, were transformed into a life mission of spreading the message that reconciliation is essential for achieving peace in the Middle East.
Robi shared her story with students, faculty and the entire university community. In the classroom, she taught the workings for her remarkable organization, uniting Palestinians and Israelis who have lost sons and daughters, siblings and other immediate family in the enduring conflict.
A university amplifying the voices of those often unheard has supported Robi’s changemaker journey. These are voices of knowledge and wisdom that come alive in our classroom. They push our understandings of everyday life beyond the ivory tower.
Students cannot innovate without feeling. We must feel to create change. Robi moved us to feel what it’s like to have a beloved son killed and what can be achieved by transforming pain into peace and justice.
Two weeks ago, I met Robi at an event in Denver. She was wearing her trademark canvas shoes, embroidered by Palestinian women in her circle of parents.
Upon discovering that we had the same size, Robi took off her shoes and gave them to me to wear today, in case you are wondering about my sense of fashion. The peacemaker gave me her shoes to guide me as an educator for change. She gave me her shoes to move faster, because the world cannot wait.
Last summer, Fred was back in Ghana, recruiting 105 students for the new village school he created. These are students who are now learning to read and write, not by boring repetition, and certainly not under a mango tree.
Who knows what the future holds for Fred in Ghana or for Veronika in Detroit. Their initiatives might become great successes or they might fail. That is the nature of creating change.
Who is to say that a discovery is not in the making by a student participating in this year’s water challenge? I certainly hope so. My doors are open and I won’t be rolling my eyes, because I believe in universities are engines of world change.
That is the future I work for. What about you? What are you going to change? Thank you.