Over the past month, 4 million students have obtained degrees from colleges and universities around the country with the hope of entering the workforce. Studies show that for 55 percent of them, a concern for social causes will be an important factor in deciding where to work. The strong interest among the college-aged in doing social good has led to an explosion of social entrepreneurship university programs around the world—there are now 148 centers across 350 countries. Ashoka U, which promotes social innovation in higher education by developing a global network of students, faculty, and community leaders working to advance the field, has expanded to 30 campuses during the past few years alone. Top business schools now offer twice as many courses on nonprofit management as they did in 2003. These statistics leave no doubt that offering university courses and degrees in social entrepreneurship is not a passing trend—it’s here to stay. As the latest class of aspiring changemakers heads from the campus out into the working world, an important question that all who are concerned with advancing the field must consider is: How well are we preparing our students to grapple with the practicalities of social entrepreneurship in the field?

My experience teaching at Stanford’s Program on Social Entrepreneurship has raised my awareness of the vital role of service learning—skills-based training in the classroom to share experiential wisdom about the day-to-day work of social entrepreneurship—in bridging the gap between theory and practice. In the class I teach, for example, I lead students through sessions on fundraising methods, measuring the impact of programs, and navigating culture.

To provide additional practical insight, service-learning students have the opportunity to apply what they have learned through final projects that support the work of nonprofits. A unique aspect of the Program on Social Entrepreneurship is that we host nonprofit leaders as social entrepreneurs in residence (SEERS Fellows), who are mid-career practitioners. For an entire academic quarter, they participate in my class weekly, sharing with the students their perspectives and experiences directly from the field. Students also work side-by-side with the SEERS Fellows on projects that support the nonprofits’ work. For example, last quarter one group of our students worked with SEERS fellow Lateefah Simon, the former executive director and board chair for the Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD), to develop a needs assessment for poor young girls of color in San Francisco.

The students conducted extensive demographic research; they interviewed a dozen young women who had benefitted from CYWD’s programming, and spent an afternoon with girls in juvenile hall to learn from them about their paths into the criminal justice system and the types of services they wish existed to help others like them stay out of trouble. The students then worked closely with Simon and me to reflect on what they discovered and develop a set of recommendations for CYWD’s programming going forward.

The students were deeply affected by the realization of how little they understood—from their position of relative privilege—about the difficulties of the young women’s lives. While they were initially excited about developing a mentoring program for these at-risk young women to help them apply to college, they learned that the application process was the least-problematic hurdle the girls faced in getting a four-year education. Other barriers included a lack of money for housing, poor academic preparation for college-level classes, and the necessity of working to provide income for their families.

Many of the students attested in their course evaluations to the profound impact of the more-practical training they received in the class. One student wrote, “The service-learning component of the course was central. It grounded my learning of theories and concepts, particularly of cultural sensitivity, [in] the reality, in a way I would never have been able to see/connect concretely otherwise.” Another student pointed out, “I learned how to deal with challenges of working in the real world, as in, not an isolated ‘Stanford bubble’ setting.”

Bringing such real-world experience into the curriculum through community-service and volunteering programs, and through instructor and practitioner involvement in designing rich training experiences, both in the field and in the classroom, is critical to improving the preparation of the next-generation of social entrepreneurs.

The service-learning approach at Stanford has been so successful that the university’s Haas Center for Public Service, along with campus partners, has set the ambitious goal of doubling the number of service-learning classes on campus by the end of 2016. All universities offering courses in social entrepreneurship should begin working to make this approach an integral part of their curricula. This requires training professors in the craft; the Stanford Haas Center’s rigorous program for faculty gives them the tools to integrate skills-based lessons—such as how to lead reflection exercises with students, how to evaluate project-based work, and how to craft projects that are truly meaningful for students and practitioners alike—into their instruction. This training was critical to me as I developed my own class.

In our efforts to continue making social entrepreneurship a transformative force in solving the complex social problems problems, innovation in the classroom is as important as it is in the field.

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