Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2010 | In Class

Be the Change

By Shelbi Thomas
Freshmen aim to transform the world through a service learning course.

An elderly woman's face lights up as she peers down at her card. Placing her last chip over a picture of Santa Claus, she cries out, "Bingo!" The UI freshmen running the game at Oaknoll Retirement Community cheer and hand out prizes of stuffed animals, Christmas hats, and candy canes.

Afterwards, a choir of young voices leads the Oaknoll residents in seasonal tunes like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman," and "Jingle Bells." "Encore! Encore!" demand the senior citizens, as the students leave each of them with a hug and a Christmas card.

Some people may consider the holidays to be the most wonderful time of the year, but many elderly find they bring back painful memories of loved ones lost. Last December, students in an unusual first-year honors seminar returned smiles to Oaknoll residents' faces by bringing a classroom service idea to life.

"If you want to change the world, you have to start somewhere," says Kaitlin Thompson*, the sophomore marketing major who helped coordinate the students' visit to the retirement community. "Our neighborhood was a great place to start."

Led by UI Tippie College of Business professors Ken Brown and Amy Colbert*, 04PhD, "How to Change the World: Principles of Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship" encourages the leaders of tomorrow to start making a difference today. The course helps students develop the self-management, leadership, and entrepreneurial skills needed to find solutions to societal problems. Focusing on community service, nonprofit leadership, and social entrepreneurship, the class also familiarizes first-year students with opportunities to help at the University of Iowa and in the surrounding community.

Changing the world may seem like a daunting—even presumptuous—task, but today's undergraduates are more than willing to meet the challenge. As members of the so-called "Civic Generation," these youngsters demonstrate selfless attitudes toward service that have been shaped by humanitarian crises like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, even before college, an overwhelming majority of this UI class had volunteer experience—from collecting pop cans for charity to helping with local theater performances. Thanks to such members of the university community and the campus's rich culture of civic engagement, the Corporation for National and Community Service in 2008 reported Iowa City as having the second-highest volunteer rate in the nation (45.1 percent of its population).

To find a direction for their energies and enthusiasm, students in Brown and Colbert's class read How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein, which offers inspiring stories of everyday people. They learn about a man who started a teen center in the basement of a housing project, which developed into a national organization that has helped thousands of low-income students afford college. They're encouraged by the example of a woman who empowered street children in India to break free from a life of poverty and crime by creating a free emergency helpline.

After reading these social entrepreneurs' stories, Hayley Perrin* looked for ways she could show leadership in her own life. Once afraid of public speaking, the second-year pre-pharmacy major overcame her fear and joined her residence hall's government. Since then, she has also become a Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) mentor. "It's important to know where you're going in life and how you're going to get there," says Perrin. "You can say you want to achieve world peace, but how are you going to make it happen?"

To figure that out, students examine their dreams, strengths, and weaknesses. They craft personal mission statements that help them hone in on a specific plan for what to achieve in life, particularly while on the UI campus. After all, as Gandhi once said, you must "be the change you want to see in the world."

A mission statement encourages students to make their intangible goals concrete and achievable. The exercise isn't meant to discourage them from dreaming big. In fact, quite the opposite is true. "When you set big, aggressive, optimistic visions, you get farther than you would without them," says Colbert. "Don't start small, because that's what you'll get."

Of course, writing a dream on a piece of paper is far removed from making it come true. So, midway through the course, students brainstorm ideas for how to serve the community; then they form teams to bring these thoughts into action. The small class size makes them feel safe about thinking big and taking risks. To encourage students to persevere through their challenges and mistakes,their professors share wise words from President Theodore Roosevelt: "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause."

As most of the students have already served as volunteers, "How to Change the World" challenges them to make a bigger impact by becoming nonprofit leaders or social entrepreneurs. Nonprofit leaders call the shots on a charitable organization's operations, while social entrepreneurs use innovation to solve critical problems in communities. "People who volunteer full-time may give 40 hours a week to their cause," says Colbert, "but if they can motivate 40 friends to do the same thing, the impact is much greater. That's the power of leadership."

In order to have a successful social venture, students must first recognize the needs that exist in the community. That's why their professors encourage them to attend the UI's annual volunteer fair to learn about existing organizations and how to partner with them in their missions.

One "How to Change the World" group connected with Table to Table, an Iowa City-area food rescue organization that collects leftover items from grocery stores and restaurants and distributes them to agencies that serve homeless, hungry, and at-risk people. Robert Andrlik, 00BLS, executive director of Table to Table, explained how the organization began with a handful of people concerned with food waste and hunger in their community. Though it started out small, Table to Table now operates with four staff members and about 100 volunteers who distributed nearly 900,000 pounds of food last year.

Inspired by Table to Table's mission, Perrin and her teammates decided to hold a penny wars competition among the residence halls to see which dorm could raise the most money for the organization. Each residence hall would display a jar for residents to fill with pennies and dollars. It seemed such a simple idea, but Perrin and her group ran into numerous obstacles. First, they discovered that university cash-holding policies prevented them from extending the penny wars to all residence halls. To bypass this problem, the team transformed their event into an honors program limited to the floors of Daum Hall. Then, the group struggled with timing. In the midst of a hall clothing drive or in the week before final exams, they discovered, few students remembered to hand over their change. Undeterred, the group rescheduled the penny wars for the spring semester, raising a total of $150. Andrlik says the money has gone a long way in stocking the pantries of local charitable agencies such as the Crisis Center Food Bank, the Ronald McDonald House, and the Free Lunch Program.

Though the penny wars team hit some roadblocks, Perrin says the experience gave her the confidence to try the concept again this year. Already, she's connected with her former teammates to expand the project's reach—and its impact.

Through her experiences at Oaknoll, Thompson learned valuable teamwork and leadership skills that she's already applied in community service projects with Women in Business and to help raise money for children with cancer as a student leader of Dance Marathon.

In the strictest sense, these students may not have changed the world, but they have made a difference in their community—and they've been inspired to apply their volunteer spirit in future endeavors. In fact, Brown and Colbert offer a quote from American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead to remind students not to underestimate their ability to make a difference: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."