A decade ago, cultural and geographic boundaries between students were far less porous than they are today. Schools were communities, but there was little connection between these communities globally. Things have changed, and for the better. Students around the globe can now have personal and academic relationships with each other in ways that would have been unimaginable years ago. The architects behind these new community partnerships are abundant. Students are armed with an arsenal of tools—global social media tools such as Twitter, blogs, videoconferences, and a proliferation of study abroad programs, to name a few—to connect to the world.
So we have the tools to communicate. But when it comes to students and social change, what is often missing is synthesis. How can global communication help students understand the world better? How can they exchange ideas and experiences with peers in other countries to grow as innovators? To build a solid ecosystem of social improvement, we—and our students—must be able to understand the context in which change happens; we must look outwardly and collect knowledge and perspective to grow internally. As global educators, we must ask ourselves: Are students today using their ability to connect to the world to understand?
The need for this synthesis is even greater in the higher education space, where students are on the verge of applying their studies in the real world. This is even more important in the emerging economic hubs of the world, where today’s students are the key for tomorrow’s sustainable development. At Altis Postgraduate School of Business & Society at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, we have developed a program, offered in Nairobi to students from the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, in which students can practically engage in developing entrepreneurial solutions for their home countries and communities. Our faculty is a team of 24 diverse professional leaders from Italy, Kenya, and India, and our MBA program is one resulting from a partnership with the Tangaza College at Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya (where the program is hosted), and the Loyola Institute of Business Administration in Chennai, India.
Our students spend their time developing and executing social business plans for African countries and communities. The first class, which ended last November, graduated 38 students, representing 14 different African countries. Student initiatives included empowering coffee farmers through the value chain in Uganda, supporting the production of bio-fertilizers in Ghana, producing sustainable bamboo furniture in Ethiopia, and banana food processing in Rwanda. The diversity of these social business proposals reflects the students’ creativity and passion for social good.
One student created a project during his time with Altis that focused on sustainable tourism in the Volta region of Ghana. He collaborated with rural communities in Ghana, which agreed to accommodate tourists in return for shared profits and a common strategy for environmental protection of local forests and natural settings. Through his connection with Altis, the student worked with an Italian professor of sustainable tourism and a European travel agency. These diverse partners allowed him to boost his activity operationally and financially. Meanwhile, the connections he forged with the local communities in Ghana, which strictly involved the social business, helped him understand the nuances and needs of the High Volta Region in an intimate way. The eco-tourism start-up began operations in April this year. It has already created four permanent jobs and is showing positive effects on local communities in terms of training for local tourist operators.
Without his partnerships in Ghana and Europe, this student’s project would not have been as successful. His understanding of the issues involved in structuring and growing a sustainable tourism initiative would not have been as informed. If we aspire to facilitate our students’ deep global understanding—which all educators should seek to do—then we must help them connect both physically and virtually. We must help our students appreciate that there is utility in reciprocity and community.
In March, the Altis MBA Social Entrepreneurship and Management program received the Ashoka U Cordes Innovation Award for making concrete steps in offering higher education students this opportunity. We believe it crucial that this notion of synthesis finds it’s way back into the dialogues around higher education reform.