How Naperville college helps students become 'changemakers'

Editor's note: Suburban Education Lab is an occasional series focusing on inno­vative programs at suburban schools, colleges and universities, often tackling common, universal prob­lems students face using unique methods.

Lyndsay Hartman always wanted to change the world. And she's doing it one needle at a time.

Having once dated a heroin addict and worked with drug users, Hartman wanted to help them be safe while dealing with their addictions.

The 30-year-old sociology student at North Central College in Naperville started a needle exchange program in Kane County out of her Batavia home this spring. Her goal is to help injection drug users get access to clean supplies and overdose prevention drugs at no cost through partnerships with social service agencies and nonprofits.

Hartman got the idea for the needle exchange after taking a social impact entrepreneurship class and participating in NCC's “Changemaker Challenge” last winter. She was among eight finalists pitching ideas for businesses or nonprofits with a social change component and among four students who won funding to launch their projects.

Social entrepreneurship — finding innovative solutions to pressing social problems — is an emerging field of study.

NCC's Center for Social Impact launched last November offers “changemaking pathways” for students to explore social issues and be change leaders while earning their degrees.

“The primary purpose is to solve a social problem,” center co-director Jeremy Gudauskas said. “The movement of social entrepreneurship has really happened within the last 10 years in higher education. Traditionally, the models were you start a business to make money or you start a nonprofit to solve social problems. The lines are getting blurred and there's hybrid ways of thinking ... you can actually do both.”

Social awareness

The concept of social entrepreneurship especially appeals to millennials — the generation born between 1980 and the mid-2000s and the largest segment of the nation's population, overtaking baby boomers. Millennials are more tech savvy having grown up in the age of internet, more educated and far more diverse than previous generations of Americans — more than 44 percent belong to a minority race or ethnic group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Millennials and those even coming up after them are very socially aware,” Gudauskas said. “They would much rather contribute to businesses that align with their values. We've identified five pathways to social impact ... five ways students can understand how they can make a difference.”

Those pathways are community service and volunteering, academics and research, social entrepreneurship and innovation, civic engagement and leadership, and advocacy and activism. Each pathway provides learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom, immersion experiences, student organization activities, leadership opportunities and funding sources.

The college recently was designated a “Changemaker Campus” by Ashoka U and is part of a worldwide network of nearly 50 colleges and universities leading in social entrepreneurship and innovation programs. Ashoka U helps foster a campuswide culture of social innovation, connecting “changemakers” with other students, faculty, administrators, and community leaders to share inspiration, ideas, and resources, according to the group's website.

Gudauskas said the “Changemaker Challenge” is one of the ways NCC supports innovation. Among the student ideas funded last fall were an indoor farming business addressing food deserts, a health app to help colleges and universities assess students' mental health needs, and improving access to feminine hygiene products for low-income women in the U.S.

The college will begin offering social entrepreneurship and ethical leadership degrees in the fall of 2019. Students will learn to find sustainable solutions for social and environmental issues, how to market, fund and launch a venture, the legal aspects and traditional business entrepreneurship skills. They will participate in workshops, receive mentoring and develop leadership skills, as well as engage in community-based research, learning and projects working with local partners.

“It's a way of learning how to solve social problems through levers of business and innovation,” Gudauskas said. “We really want to be a resource to those students to help them with their advocacy efforts.”

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Jeremy Gudauskas, assistant vice president and co-director of North Central College's Center for Social Impact, says the Naperville college offers "changemaking" pathways to help students explore issues they care about while earning their degrees. DAILY HERALD PHOTO
Steve Oliveri emcees a TEDx event at North Central College in Naperville last spring. The event was organized by the college's Center for Social Impact through which NCC is launching a social entrepreneurship degree next year to help students find innovative solutions to social problems. DAILY HERALD PHOTO
Kai Ruggeri delivers his talk, "Forward: When Better Beats Perfect," during a TEDx event at North Central College in Naperville last spring focusing on social entrepreneurship. DAILY HERALD PHOTO
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