Nurturing Social Entrepreneurs

By THOMAS WILLIAMSON

Twelve students sit around a table with two professors and two staff members. They are figuring out how to help a student set parameters around her social service internship, in particular negotiating reasonable work hours.

It’s a lively conversation, as we try to balance the intern’s commitment to her work colleagues along with her responsibilities to the program that she is part of that summer. For example, she wants to help kids get home from their swimming lessons, but also needs to make it back to her own house for a community conversation. She wants to impress her supervisor, yet also wants to learn from interactions with her peer group. The faculty and staff present smile because we have been part of such conversations before and recognize that such trade-offs are part of balancing a busy life.

I am offering here a glimpse the Social Entrepreneurship Scholars (SES) program at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, a program that just completed its tenth year. St. Olaf is a private liberal arts institution located in Northfield, a small town 40 miles south of the Twin Cities. Each year we select 10–12 students to live together while doing community-engagement internships in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. We supplement the experience with an intensive orientation, seminars and site visits, and a final presentation to community partners. Our extensive assessment of student participants shows that they highly value the experience, and the internship evaluations we receive from site supervisors are impressively strong. In the spirit of the program, it is our wish to share this experience with other institutions, reflecting on both the reasons that the program works and some of the possible challenges of replicating it elsewhere.

History

The SES program grew from an initiative of our career center called Leaders for Social Change (LSC), which put St. Olaf students into internships at Northfield non-profit organizations and housed them at a campus-owned residence. Minimal faculty and staff resources were included in the effort, given the familiarity students had with their surroundings and the limited funds available for doing so. The program scaled up in 2009, when a second house was added in Saint Paul to supplement the Northfield house. With this addition the orientation program increased, the faculty involvement increased, as did the opportunities for cross-pollination (students from Saint Paul house and the Northfield house would visit each other and compare experiences). But ultimately such a structure grew too complicated and expensive. When the career center changed structure in 2011, the LSC program became SES, and the Saint Paul house doubled in size and fully replaced the location in Northfield. The aim was for a more sustainable program that would better leverage the resources available in the Twin Cities, including the wide array of internship sites.

Our use of the term “social entrepreneurship” highlights the search for ways to address social problems in a creative, sustainable manner. Each part of the program, from the communal living and internship sites to our academic seminars and assignments, aims to show students the complexity of contemporary problems and the range of responses to them. For example, efforts to improve public health include needle exchange at the Minnesota AIDS Project, clean water products developed by Ecolab, mentoring young mothers at Project for Pride in Living, and anti-sex trafficking efforts by the Ramsey County Attorney’s office. Students come to recognize that the problems look big, but so do the resources available to address them. Social entrepreneurship emphasizes the value of fresh connections and the power of ideas, old and new alike.

Orientation

Since Northfield is part rural town and part exurb, a significant part of the SES learning experience comes from living in the city of Saint Paul. We often hear from students what a big step it is for them just to ride public transportation. Thus we highly encourage them to do so. On the second day of orientation, students are given a bus pass and pointed to downtown Saint Paul. There they get a tour of the downtown area, then board the light rail train that links Saint Paul with Minneapolis. We get off at stations in different neighborhoods, comparing the areas of intense investment to those without much new development. They end up in downtown Minneapolis, encouraged to consider both the forest of construction cranes along with the significant number of homeless people. In the process they learn how to swipe their passes, add money, and read a transit schedule. They also learn that sitting next to strangers for twenty minutes a day is a normal, perhaps even pleasant thing to do.

During the other parts of our orientation, we work through a host of issues related to community life. Each student begins the summer by writing a “citizenship autobiography” where they narrate their political socialization. This helps them to reflect on what they bring to the program and to each other. Students write on a range of experiences, from having clergy as parents, to growing up among the “hidden poor” in the suburbs, to being active in civil rights struggles, Model U.N., and electoral politics. We then have them chart these out in the shape of a tree, working from their formative roots to prospective branches. Sharing these drawings with each other is a good step to sharing a house (and a transformative experience) together.

We also guide students through the possibilities of living jointly in community. Those of us who have been involved with the program a long time have a sense of what works best, in particular that imposing rules on the group is not effective. For example, their initial instinct is to buy their own food, carefully label it, and try to fit it all into a shared refrigerator. We subtly suggest: what if you were to cook together? Eventually most groups end up doing so, shopping and preparing communal dinners. They find those community meals among the most valuable aspects of SES. Cooking together raises the question of where to shop. The grocery options in their neighborhood range from Whole Foods to a Coop to a discount warehouse, each with its own questions. Not all groups use the same calculations. Some argue that the key criteria should be price; others argue that they should think in terms of health (organic food, for example). Sometimes they consider the ethics of purchasing meat, and very rarely, consider what it means to account for labor practices and unionization. Buying communal food pushes the group to reflect on the many ethical relationships that surround them.

By not (over)prescribing how they will live together, we reap some fruitful student creativity. It is natural that a group of twelve will form subgroups: the runners, the chefs, the soccer players, and the Law and Order fans. But these can also feel exclusive. The staff and faculty do our best to talk through group frustrations, but there is only so much we can do. We were thus astonished when a group decided to implement an initiative for “one-on-ones” with each other, which encouraged periodic paired time with each person in the house (for a walk or coffee or doing dishes). That year’s group solidarity was outstanding. Even better, the students passed on their idea to the next year’s group. Such ideas have become part of SES lore.

We also prepare them for the experience of working as interns. We urge them to study carefully their host organization, understanding its mission, funding, and organizational chart hierarchy. We also talk about professional self-presentation and setting reasonable goals, as well as eating lunch and the perils of an after-work happy hour. We do all of this because the students are not only representing themselves and St. Olaf, they are also representing SES. We now have long-lasting relationships with many of our internship sites and we don’t want to jeopardize those. We also want students to go beyond the usual internship experience. We have had students do substantial research projects, for example, and want to enhance such opportunities where possible (depending on the particular site and student).

Our conversation about preparing for internships is especially rich because the students are joining such different organizations. Some will work with three colleagues in a single space, where others will have several hundred in a large building. Management styles range from highly scripted to loosely fluid, as do the tasks they are asked to perform. While the students hear each other’s questions, they get a chance to see the advantages and disadvantages of these varied circumstances, and begin contemplating their own future. They also get a glimpse of the summer’s opportunity to learn from each other’s work experiences, potentially turning one internship site into twelve.

Finances

We offer each student participant a stipend of $2100 for the summer, which includes $200 for community groceries. We do this to make sure that the program is open to more than just those who can forego paid income for June and July. St. Olaf pays for housing. Students are responsible for incidentals like laundry and transportation to their sites. Faculty are compensated $400 for each internship that they supervise, while staff receive no extra compensation. That is not the only inequality in the program. The students come from different backgrounds: some have cars and plenty of spending money, and others need to scrimp on laundry and bus fare to save for their fall books. Talking about money at St. Olaf is quite awkward, but the intimacy of SES brings it into the open. The students recognize that the social cleavages they see in their internship sites also appear in their very own household. It is good to raise such issues even if we can’t solve them.

The entire program costs about $35,000. Some is paid for by a St. Olaf endowment for peace and justice established by alumni, while the rest of it comes from other endowments managed by our center for career and vocation.

Academic Expectations

We usually offer three seminars over the course of the summer. These include time for internship reflection and conversation about group dynamics. We then move into a specific topic, like racism, sustainability, public health, or education, and share how each internship site intersects with that theme. The students are often quite surprised at the many connections they make and we facilitators enjoy hearing the insight that comes from their first-hand community experience.

Site visits allow us to explore more deeply into the community. They also allow the students to show what they have learned. For example, we have visited the Minnesota AIDS Project multiple times. Students glimpse how a health care advocacy program works, from insurance counseling to legislative lobbying. The MAP site supervisor has a student intern offer the group a presentation on “HIV 101.” They marvel at how much can be learned in just a few weeks (like other good program ideas, this came from the site rather than from us). We have also taken students to a neighborhood resource center, visited a Fortune 500 company’s social responsibility section, met with political leaders, and toured a Catholic Charities homeless shelter. This past summer we took a walking tour that highlighted Saint Paul’s immigrant and labor history. Our guide creatively connected a 1890s railroad strike, land tenure shifts in Poland, and the rise of the Twin Cities as a global center of wheat production. Out in the community we strive to eat somewhere interesting where students can experience both food and a neighborhood likely new to them.

The most important processing comes when students hang out during the evenings and weekends and puzzle through their experiences. We shape this by assigning a weekly conversation topic, to be discussed in a manner chosen by the group. They then summarize the conversation and post it on a Google doc for the facilitators to read. But of course informal conversation breaks out all the time, as we hope it would. Indeed we have to remind students that they cannot stay up all night talking when they have a long workday ahead of them! The students also keep a Google doc journal to share more private reflections with the program facilitators. This is both a record of what they have done and a means to flag potential challenges for a particular student or the group as a whole.

Finally students prepare a brief public presentation to share with their community partners as a way to integrate their learning and thank those who have helped us. We have done this in different ways, including a group PowerPoint and a poster session. But we have had the best success with final assignments that highlight the program’s shared processing. We pair the students up, with special attention to those with the most divergent internship sites, and then have them create a ten-minute presentation. They are asked to narrate key things they did, some of what they learned, and reflect on the similarities and differences of their sites and what the experience has taught them about future possibilities. We like showing our funders and site supervisors alike what a big impression the program makes on student participants.

Program Benefits

A major reward of SES is that students get to partake in many internship experiences, rather than just one. They get to compare their own internship site to those of their fellow students, considering the value of a big organization versus a small one, direct service compared to policy making, and a well-run organization compared to a more chaotic one. If the big goal of an internship is to help students decide both what they might want to do and what they definitely do not, this program offers a wide range of possibilities to consider.

Another reward for our institution is enhancing connections with local organizations. This helps on several levels. First, it is rare to find a workplace in Minneapolis or Saint Paul that doesn’t employ St. Olaf graduates. SES is a chance to “fly the flag” and connect with alumni. For example, at one of our internship sites, it is customary that the St. Olaf alums take the intern out for a meal. We also strive to do individual site visits with interns at the end of the summer. This gives the student a chance to share their immediate experience and allows faculty to connect with an interesting range of community professionals.

We also have been fortunate that several of our interns have gone on to employment in the same field as their internship. Sometimes the connection has gone even further. One local health-related organization has hosted our program interns for many years. After three such years, we explored the idea of having two SES interns do a research project for them over the summer. They approved the idea, hosted and helped the two students. The interns went on to do highly creative work that went beyond what we initially imagined to be possible, eventually presenting their findings at a professional conference. The research experience was good for their future employability, but also further opened up possibilities at the organization. Though this is correlation and not causation (!), two years after the project there were seven St. Olaf alumni working there.

Student evaluations of the program emphasize their increased confidence as a result of the program. They highlight the insights that they gain from working and living in a city. They remark how their horizons were broadened by comparisons with their housemates. Indeed quite a number of SES alumni pursue some kind of year-of-service of opportunity after graduation. Further on, many of them pursue degrees in law, social work, or public policy. We recruit highly promising students and are grateful that their knowledge of future opportunities increases so substantially. Over the last five years we have been able to recruit more international students to the program, and their contributions (and rewards) are large as well. SES is a premier opportunity for our students and a meaningful way to serve organizations in the Twin Cities.

Challenges

As might be apparent from this description, SES is a high-touch program. Two faculty and two staff members for twelve students might seem like a lot, but we make it more manageable by dividing up responsibilities and taking turns with tasks. Many hands lighten work and make it so the program’s fate does not hinge on just a few individuals. Of course bringing in new faculty and staff adds new ideas and more campus support for SES. We are always excited for colleagues to witness the program’s impact on student participants and community partners.

Another challenge is housing. We have rented space from a local college and are grateful to have their assistance. Outside of a college or university, it is difficult to find a place big enough for twelve students that is affordable and includes sufficient common space for them to share. Separate apartments, even if near each other, would not allow communal cooking or promote as much informal socializing. We are understandably not a priority for the institution renting to us and thus have been moved around as their needs change. It would be great if St. Olaf could buy a large house for us in Saint Paul or Minneapolis but that is not likely to happen!

A final challenge is more subtle, but also quite important to address. We attract strong students to SES, ones who have heard good things about it and bring high expectations. This helps them stretch themselves, but also risks increased stress. Students can feel the need for a major internship accomplishment or a significant impact on the community. While we want the students to spend the time comparing their experiences, this can also become unhealthy. We spend time scaling down such lofty expectations. Situations are different, individual capacities are different, and maintaining perspective is vital. On occasion students have struggled with mental health issues over the summer. Our close communication with them has helped to avoid any disasters, but we don’t want a tight community to become a pressure cooker.

Reflection

Over 120 students have taken part in this program. We are especially pleased with the opportunities that it has opened up for them as they took leadership positions on campus, graduated, and made their way in the world. Though Nate Jacobi (Associate Director, Piper Center for Vocation and Career) and I (Associate Professor, Anthropology Department) have been consistent members of the program, over the years 11 other faculty members have participated, along with 4 other staff members. In total we have worked with 45 different internship sites, including non-profits, for-profit companies, and government organizations. The SES program is unique in that it integrates career development, civic and community engagement, and academic learning in a single program.

After many years of working with the program, I can’t walk down the street in Saint Paul or Minneapolis without reference to the work of SES students. I see wayfinding signs they have created for a district council and murals they have painted with local youth. I pass by organizations where they have interned and think about conversations with enthusiastic site supervisors. All those seminars, discussions, and meals have made an impact, including on our Northfield campus. They form a complex system with multiple feedback loops, some of which I have detailed here but not all. That complexity is at the heart of entrepreneurship and makes SES such a delight. Perhaps this essay about our St. Olaf experience might nurture such connections in your community, too. Should we stay up late and talk about the possibilities?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Williamson is Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at St. Olaf College in Michigan. He teaches courses on theory, Southeast Asia, medical anthropology, and globalization. Much of his work is based on research done in Malaysia over the past 25 years. Tom graduated from St. Olaf and earned his Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Michigan. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and two daughters.

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