March 3, 2008
Students practice 'social entrepreneurship' during trip to India
How can innovative ideas and organizations improve the lives of the poor, the handicapped and the disadvantaged?
That question was on the minds of 20 University of Iowa students each day for three weeks during a recent visit to rural, southeastern India, where they participated in a course on social entrepreneurship, which is the process of implementing ideas at the grassroots level to change society for the better.
The students first traveled to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu from Dec. 28 to Jan. 19 for the class called "Social Entrepreneurship in Tamil Nadu, India." There, they were placed with eight organizations, including hospitals and employment training facilities, where they worked on issues including microfinance, healthcare for the poor, eye care, child labor, waste management, water conservation, schools for the handicapped and the use of design for empowerment. Five of the partner organizations were in or near Pondicherry, two were in Madurai, and one was in Kanchipuram.
According to the instructors -- UI geography professor Raj Rajagopal and adjunct professor of geography and international studies Edwin Brands -- the class found that seemingly intractable problems looked different when viewed through the lens of social entrepreneurship. The students, whose major fields of study ranged from engineering and business to geography, nursing and public health, observed that they can make small but important differences in peoples' lives through incremental change.
"We spent the larger part of six months preparing for this course, and over 35 interested students applied," Brands said. "All of the students were interested in this course because it presented a unique opportunity to learn about grassroots development projects by direct observation and participation. Several of the students are already making plans to return to India this summer to continue working on projects (one on women's healthcare, and another on a cooperative grocery market) they began this winter."
Social entrepreneurship, said Rajagopal and Brands, works by identifying large-scale social problems and then finding innovative approaches to alleviate them. These problems include poverty, lack of affordable healthcare and lack of electricity. Social entrepreneurs come from all walks of life but have one thing in common: instead of focusing on monetary goals, they seek returns in the form of empowering disadvantaged individuals or groups.
The students each spent about 10 days with their assigned partner organizations and spent the final week together in Pondicherry preparing for a workshop attended by representatives of the partner organizations where they presented their observations, findings and suggestions. Also as part of the course requirements, students wrote 500- to 700-word essays describing their experiences.
In addition to learning about the specific work of their partner organizations in India, students also gleaned more general lessons from the experience.
Simone Williams, a UI geography doctoral student, said, "I recognized there is no better way to appreciate another culture, or a concept such as social entrepreneurship, than to be immersed in it. And there is no better way to understand and reaffirm your own goal of social responsibility than to view it from a different perspective."
Ngaire Honey, a Spanish and international relations major from Wartburg College, said, "You don't have to be a politician or a billionaire to make a meaningful impact on the world. If designers and village women can make the world a better place, anyone in any field can as well. So I never figured out what I want to do with my future, but I do know that I will make a difference in the world and practice social responsibility no matter what profession I eventually choose."
Said Brands, "We intended for the experience to be mutually beneficial for both students and partner organizations, who all very much appreciated the students' work, both tangible and intangible." During their time in India, the students also visited several religious, social and cultural landmarks, including temples, ruins and places of contemplation.
This is the second year the Iowa class has been held. Last year, a group of 17 UI students visited Tamil Nadu to study microfinancing. An article that appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of BizEd magazine (http://www.aacsb.edu/publications/Archives/MayJun07/26-31_bized.pdf) featured last year's course together with similar courses at Harvard and Lehigh universities.
What lies ahead for the program?"For next year, we are working on expanding this type of program to multiple schools, offering several types of courses -- for example, mountain ecology, microfinance, social entrepreneurship, ecotourism, public health promotion and urban studies -- in different locations, including mountain resorts of Kodaikanal and Ooty, the coastal plains of Tamil Nadu, and possibly urban areas such as Hyderabad and Chennai," said Rajagopal. "We have found great interest in both India and in the United States in these types of courses."
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