MAGGIE DENNIS CONDUCTS AN IMPACT ASSESSMENT STUDY ON BEHALF OF SANKARA EYE CARE, A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE IN INDIA.

MAGGIE DENNIS CONDUCTS AN IMPACT ASSESSMENT STUDY ON BEHALF OF SANKARA EYE CARE, A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE IN INDIA.

This is Not Your Typical Study Abroad 

The expectations, work, and rewards are much, much higher


By: Jaime Gusching

  • 18 Fellows selected
  • 5 social enterprises
  • 4 countries
  • 10 weeks of preparation
  • 7 weeks on the ground
  • 100s of hours of staff time on logistics
  • 10 weeks of wrap-up

Every year, Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship awards a group of undergraduates the Global Social Benefit Fellowship. It is the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance for students to get their hands dirty alongside social entrepreneurs in Cambodia, Mexico, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda.

The Fellows’ journey begins with an intensive spring quarter course taught by Miller Center’s Thane Kreiner, Ph.D. Executive Director, and Keith Warner OFM, Director of the Center’s Education & Action Research department.

MAGGIE DENNIS AND JANA LEE BEFRIEND A SANKARA EYE CARE PATIENT IN INDIA DURING THE SUMMER OF 2015. PHOTO CREDIT: SANTA CLARA UNIVERSITY

MAGGIE DENNIS AND JANA LEE BEFRIEND A SANKARA EYE CARE PATIENT IN INDIA DURING THE SUMMER OF 2015. PHOTO CREDIT: SANTA CLARA UNIVERSITY

For most, the crash course in social entrepreneurship is the most challenging class of their SCU careers. They are knee-deep in the theories of economists, philosophers, and practitioners engaged in the fight against poverty. The Fellows discover why top-down approaches to development—government initiatives and traditional philanthropy—fall short. The need for sustainable, impact-driven businesses as part of the solution set becomes apparent.

Then the Fellows meet social entrepreneur rockstars— Banapads, Ikamva Youth, iKure, Jibu, Operation ASHA, Rags2Riches, Solar Sister, and Sistema Biobolsa. Each organization tackles poverty in its own pioneering way by providing clean water, selling solar light, innovating waste management, creating job opportunities, and even producing sanitary pads for girls to stay in school.

All of the organizations are graduates of Miller Center’s Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI®) programs.

Split into teams of two, the Fellows work alongside their respective social entrepreneurs to carve out action research projects for the summer. They draft in-depth proposals of what they plan to accomplish during their time abroad: market research analysis, social impact measurement, website and app development, and marketing tools such as video production. 

It all sounds pretty good on paper. Then reality hits.

ELIZABETH SHERWIN AND PAUL DAVID INTERVIEWS BENEFICIARIES OF SISTEMA BIOBOLSA, A MEXICAN SOCIAL ENTERPRISE. PHOTO CREDIT: SANTA CLARA UNIVERSITY

ELIZABETH SHERWIN AND PAUL DAVID INTERVIEWS BENEFICIARIES OF SISTEMA BIOBOLSA, A MEXICAN SOCIAL ENTERPRISE. PHOTO CREDIT: SANTA CLARA UNIVERSITY

The school year ends. While their classmates take more orthodox internships, the Fellows take to the skies, having no idea of the experience awaiting them.

Once they land in their respective countries, a wave of cultural and lingual barriers engulfs them. Problems they have discussed in class take form and flesh. Frustrating bureaucracy, infrastructure, insane traffic, senseless taxes, and miscommunications become commonplace.

In a very real sense, the problems of the poor become their own.

The environmental degradation and pollution becomes the very air that they breathe. Every mosquito bite could possibly be malaria. Using potable water to brush their teeth becomes one more thing to remember or else fall sick.

But what is so uplifting about the Global Social Benefit Fellowship is it not only exposes students to the problems of the poor, but also introduces them to viable solutions.

The social entrepreneurs are a source of hope and inspiration. They have created systems to solve problems at scale.

Side-by-side with social entrepreneurs, every day becomes an act of empathy and deeper understanding of the customers—not pity and charity for hapless victims—whom they are trying to serve.

Regardless of the research outcomes, these acts of empathy – walking I the shoes of the poor, feeling their pain –merit the Miller Centers’ investment of time and money.

Upon return, the Fellows reconvene for another class in the fall of their senior year. This class is simply processing all that they have experienced. Together they share hard-won lessons and take steps towards discovering their vocations. For most, the lure of making money at a giant Silicon Valley company without meaning loses its luster. At Miller Center, we call this “tipping the Apple cart.”

Fellows go on to win Fulbright scholarships, travel extensively after graduation, or pursue purpose-driven careers. Regardless of where they go, they carry with them a deep appreciation for how interconnected the world truly is and what they can do to make it better.