Earlier this month, more than 400 innovative social leaders gathered at Arizona State University for the third annual Ashoka U Exchange. Attendees had one thing in common: a commitment to transforming higher education.

Of the many inspiring initiatives featured, two stood out to me: Tulane and Duke Universities both won Ashoka U Cordes Innovation Awards for their transformative work to advance social entrepreneurship and social innovation education on their campuses. Tulane President Scott Cowen was honored for establishing the Urban Innovation Challenge (UIC), a fellowship that provides local entrepreneurs with access to the university’s resources as they develop their social impact projects. Tony Brown at Duke received the award for establishing an academic course that gives students hands-on experience with creating social impact.

Both these initiatives evoke new questions for educators: what does it mean to be a student in the 21st century? And what is the role of the university in fostering the health of communities—both locally and globally?

Hurricane Katrina induced a cultural renaissance that shifted the relationship between Tulane and New Orleans; the university committed to restoring its city after the storm pushed it to the brink of extinction. Within a few days of the storm, 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded, and over the ten months following, 95,000 jobs were lost. Five years after the disaster, the school’s commitment to the community continues. President Cowen worked with Stephanie Barksdale, director of social entrepreneurship at Tulane, to launch the UIC as a way of further engaging the campus in the city’s restorative transformation.

UIC is a one-year, paid fellowship that supports local entrepreneurs who have ideas for systematic social improvement in the city. The program recruits students who do not pay tuition and invites them to become members of the Tulane community, providing four fellows with on-campus workspace, funding, and mentorship from Tulane leaders. Association with the university, Barskdale said, creates “legitimacy around the work they are doing” and generates a positive, constructive relationship between the university and local community.

The first cohort of fellows has already launched some successful ventures around the city. One example is Grow Dat Youth Farm, a youth-staffed urban garden launched by Johanna Gillian that promotes public health and empowers youth.

While Tulane brings new talent from outside the university to its campus, Duke fosters innovation among students who already attend the university. The school’s Social Entrepreneurship in Action course is an interactive, experimental class that gets students working in project teams on solutions to problems at Duke or in the Durham, North Carolina, community. Brown said his pedagogical approach is to “make students do real work to make things happen.” In line with this, students develop a compelling, credible proposal for social impact during their first semester, and then actually launch the project the following semester. One example of a successful project that emerged from the class is Crayons to Calculators, a nonprofit that provides free school supplies to Durham teachers who would otherwise have to spend their own money on them. Since 2005, Crayons to Calculators has distributed more than $100,000 in school supplies to local students.

If it were a traditional course, students would work for an 18-week semester on a project couched between the rigors of other classes, would be graded on participation, and would move on. But Brown has shifted the paradigm that dictates how students engage with their learning. He attempts to awaken their curiosity and offer opportunities for real experience in making a difference.

In a university environment, entrepreneurs have access to rich resources and support—financial, social, and intellectual capital—that they can leverage for social good. Successful programs like the ones at Duke and Tulane stand out because the universities embrace their role as a learning laboratory for creating social value.

“What bonds us all,” Cowen said, referring to the Tulane community, “is the notion that social and civic engagement should be part of the mission of the university.”

At Duke, students are in classes that braid together theory and practice in an inspiring way. The student is leading, the teacher is supporting. Tulane invites innovators to become part of its community and to take advantage of mentoring and capital; it flips the traditional model of outreach in a way that expands the meaning of student—its fellows are individuals who do not pay tuition but who share Tulane’s vision of achieving social impact in the community.

By re-imaging what it means to be a student and what it means to learn, we can make higher education the next major driver of social change.

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