Summers in Social Innovation

Exploring Identity and International Development
by Natasha Blackadar '15
March 15, 2015

Two years ago, I witnessed the pitfalls of international service work firsthand: after a year of developing a social venture in South Africa, it became clear that my identity as a white, educated American student was inappropriate and obtrusive. Since then, I’ve realized that you don’t need to be an entrepreneur to have an immersive summer experience in social innovation--but you do need to have an open mind about your own identity and role in another community.

Last summer, Saron Mechale ‘17, Sarah Hsu ‘17, and Julianna Bradley ‘17 traveled to Panama, Uganda, and Ecuador with different programs to learn about innovation, development, and community engagement. I spoke with them to learn about the challenges and successes they faced during their summers.

Saron Mechale '17

Program: ThinkImpact
Location: Panama

There are so many different opportunities to work with social innovation in a community context. What did that look like for you at ThinkImpact?

During the first few weeks of the program, all the participating students, including myself, were looking for project ideas, and partners within the community. My partner and I worked with 5 women from the community to start a local bakery that would provide a source of income for the housewives involved. A percentage of the earnings of the bakery was allocated to provide healthier food options to the elementary school in the neighborhood where most of the kids from the community attended classes.

What was the best part of your time in Panama?

The best part of my experience in Panama was the full immersion into the culture and lifestyle of the local community where we lived. I was living and working with my host family and other members of the community, which was essential in helping me understand their daily lives. I played soccer at 4 p.m every day, went swimming in a nearby river every weekend, and watched telenovelas and played cards with the my host family until late at night. These memories with community members and the other students on this program were what made the program a great experience.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to a student who is interested in applying for this opportunity?

I think it's really important to go into this experience with an open mind. As much as the structure of international service work makes it seem as though the beneficiaries are the host community members, it's actually the other way around. It's important to know that you aren't there to "save" or "help" people; but rather be an open-minded learner and facilitator of change.

Learn more about ThinkImpact - applications are accepted on a rolling basis.

Sarah Hsu '17

Program: Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI)
Location: Uganda

How did you decide to spend your summer in Uganda with GESI?

I had taken Professor Michael White’s FYS on Environment and Society in Africa the spring of my freshmen year and I wanted to find a way to apply what I learned about development to actual community work. I was also trying to decide if Development Studies was the concentration I wanted to go into, and I figured that getting first hand experience in Uganda would give me a much better perspective.

What was the most challenging part of this experience?

Our goal was to use asset based community development, so we worked with a group of fishermen and women in a rural village called Busuyi to find ways to help them create change for themselves. It was upsetting to realize that the many Ugandans saw us and treated us like their “saviors.” I really struggled with the thought that we were all there playing out the “white man’s burden.” We all realized very quickly that cultural and language barriers were enough to significantly hinder our efforts, no matter how hard we tried to do development the “right way.” It is still a question I am wrestling with today, but it is a question that has pushed me to explore different avenues of creating social change.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to a student who is interested in applying for this opportunity?

GESI now has 7 different country options, but I would highly recommend participating in a country that has the Foundation for Sustainable Development as its location partner (Uganda, Kenya, India, Nicaragua, or Bolivia). Studying abroad is always a roller coaster, but FSD does such a good job of taking care of you and making sure your experience is the best it could possibly be. Additionally, if you want more information about what daily life was like there, you can check out my blog.

Learn more about GESI - please note that 2015 applications are now closed.

Julianna Bradley '17

Program: Social Entrepreneur Corps
Location: Ecuador

How did you decide to spend your summer working in social entrepreneurship?

I have been passionate about social entrepreneurship since I was a senior in high school and I put on my first pair of TOMS. I realized that there were organizations and companies doing creative work while changing the world and I was hooked. So, while considering what I wanted to do for my first summer of college—I knew working for a social enterprise was my only real option. I was scrolling through the newsletter for the Social Innovation Initiative on my way home for winter break when I saw the application for “Social Entrepreneur Corps.” At first I was confused as to whether to was real—it seemed to perfect for me. It was a chance to travel to a place I had never been, work for a social enterprise, and experience a land and culture in an unrestricted way.

The opportunity sounded perfect when you applied, but where there any unexpected challenges you faced during your summer experience?

There were times I would get home at night after waking up at 3, standing on a crowded bus for 3 hours and talking to customers all day in Spanish and want nothing more than a hot shower, a TV, and English. However, what I found was a cold room, no internet, and a Spanish speaking host mom wondering why I was home so late. I learned to become incredibly chill. You have to be. Your schedule changes, your stomach hurts, and your shower sometimes doesn’t work. And you’re okay with it. I learned to be so happy in such simple settings. Things like the light on the mountain or the rain on my tin roof became so incredibly beautiful. I learned to experience life in utter simplicity and found it was an incredible place to be.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to a student who is interested in applying for this opportunity?

Just do it. It changed my life. This is not cliché in any sense, because it is completely true. Social Entrepreneur Corps is the perfect mix of an organized internship and freedom to travel and experience the country. Logistically, you should take a little Spanish before, even with Rosetta Stone or Duolingo. You will become pretty fluent pretty fast, but don’t get caught in a cab not remembering how to say “left.” It happened. Also, apply for funding! There are ways to pay for an international trip without it having to be your own money.

Learn more about Social Entrepreneur Corps - applications are accepted on a rolling basis.