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New organization at college will tackle world problems

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Posted on January 30, 2012 |
By Andrea Suozzo



MIDDLEBURY — The newest department at Middlebury College isn’t academic.

Instead, it aims to extend the skills and resources students learn within the academic institution to solve problems throughout the world.

The Center for Social Entrepreneurship, which launched with a three-day symposium last week, will coordinate skills, resources and networks at Middlebury College to help budding social entrepreneurs target the problems they see in the world.

The term “social entrepreneur” doesn’t refer to making money or starting a business. Rather, it’s about recognizing a social problem and solving it in whatever way possible.

Those problems, said Jon Isham, faculty director of the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, reflect a changing world and a need for new solutions.

“The realities are new, both in what students hope to do, and in what (problems) are out there,” he said.

Climate change, poverty and human rights issues are just some of the major issues that Middlebury students are seeking to address, said Isham.

Liz Robinson, operations director of the new center, said social entrepreneurship is not a new concept on campus. From the Katherine Wasserman Davis’ Projects for Peace, which each year hands out $10,000 grants to students at a number of American colleges and universities to create a grassroots project over the summer, to the MiddCORE program, in which students spend an intensive winter semester learning to use entrepreneurial thinking and solve problems, students are already using the college’s resource networks to tackle social issues.

With its new center, the college isn’t just targeting Middlebury students — though they will have access to the resources, and eventually, the grant opportunities that the center will provide.

A core group of students, including ones who spoke at a Thursday presentation, have been working side by side with college administration to bring the center together. Lauren Kelly, Sophie Gardiner, Isabel Tyler, John Diebold and Nina Cameron all spoke about their vision for the center.

“We want to find new ways to apply our knowledge to real life,” said Diebold. “To put our liberal arts education to work in meaningful ways.”

The students said their hope is that young people aged 15 to 24 from all over the world will submit ideas to the social entrepreneurship center, where they will receive guidance and research assistance from Middlebury College students involved with the center. If the project is promising, the Center for Social Entrepreneurship will be able leverage the college’s network — whether it be faculty, alumni, former speakers at the college or other students — to build the project.

Ultimately, those involved with the center also hope to offer grants ranging from $200 to $12,000 to the most promising projects, and to track the results of each project that comes through the center for future reference.

Isham said the center doesn’t have a source of funding yet, but that he hopes to find one without treading on other fundraising efforts within the college.

Beyond the funding, though, he said, the center will help organize a movement that helps to refocus a liberal arts education for a new age, and for a new set of problems.

“We’ve been doing social entrepreneurship all along,” said Isham. “It just didn’t have a label.”

And in fact, the opening reception for the Center for Social Entrepreneurship showed off just some of the efforts Middlebury students have started over the years, projects that the center’s leadership hopes to see much more of.

Dristy Shrestha, a senior, has used two Projects for Peace grants in her native Nepal. The first, in 2009, brought small hydropower mechanisms to two different towns. Each town, with about 30 houses, now has electricity. The second project organized a national unity camp that brought together young people from across the country for a four-day event that sought to bridge differences in a country that has seen divides.

Another group, led by Kennedy Mugo Mutothori, is raising money to build a library at a school in the slums of Kenya, where Mutothori is from. Mutothori founded the school several years ago, and the group hopes to head to Kenya this June to oversee construction there.

Closer to home, Kenneth Williams and a group of three other students headed to the Bronx Academy of Letters last summer to build a community garden in the midst of New York City. They raised funds through Middlebury networks to build the garden, then worked with students all summer to teach them the skills they needed to grow and harvest crops.

Williams said the goal was to get the students curious about the food they ate, and to create a small piece of community within the city.

“We wanted to address how isolated communities can be in an urban environment,” said Williams.

The goal of the Center for Entrepreneurship, said Robinson, is to create opportunities for more students to use the skills they’ve learned at Middlebury to solve the problems they see in the world around them.

“The students really want this — they want to do good in the world,” said Robinson. “We’re providing our students with real-world opportunities. They should be doing that now, not when they leave.”

Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andrea@addisonindependent.com.

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