By Jessamyn Lau
In Summer of 2008 I was one of Ashoka U’s first interns. At that time Ashoka U was basically a bunch of half formed concepts and ideas on Post It notes on an Ashoka office wall in Rosslyn. Over the last 4 years I’ve had the privilege of seeing Ashoka U develop in to a thriving network of university campuses, each actively and strategically building social entrepreneurship on their campus. Collectively the network is pushing the current limitations of SE experiential learning, curriculum and research development, and they come together once a year to share all the insights and lessons they learn in doing so. The annual Ashoka U ‘Exchange’ was last weekend. Representatives from 100 campuses (inc. Stanford, Marquette, USD, Harvard, Thunderbird, BYU, Brown, NYU, to name just a few) met at ASU in Tempe, AZ for two days of deep discussion on the very niche subject of social entrepreneurship and higher education.
Despite being at least loosely connected to Ashoka U since its inception, I’m still surprised by the order of magnitude that the gathering grows by each year. This time around representation from several of the attending campuses included university presidents, provosts and deans. And in addition to faculty, admin, students and social entrepreneurs, there was representation from the US Dept of Education, Innosight, and IDEO. The community is flourishing. People are paying attention to what’s being shared at the Ashoka U Exchange and want to be part of the dialogue.
Coming from the even more niche position of working for a foundation funding and building a SE program, I liked what I began to see in terms of practical information sharing. There were other individuals there in very similar positions to me, as well as those who hold similar perspectives on how SE education should and could work in the future -normally finding those people would be akin to a needle in a haystack situation. I’d love to see the Exchange facilitate truly efficient knowledge sharing. This is a problem most conference models find challenging.
One of the most marvelous moments of the weekend went unnoticed by almost everyone. I saw a young student coyly approach one of the social entrepreneurs who had presented at the TEDx the evening before. She had noticed a quiet moment when he wasn’t engaged in discussion and looked approachable. I overheard pieces of the conversation as she complimented his TEDx talk, expressed admiration for his work, asked a couple of questions and asked to share information to get in contact later on. The beauty of this interchange was that it was incredibly real and important to her at that moment. It was clear she had just chosen herself a new, and carefully selected, role model. Her new role model was excited enough about her education and potential as a social innovator to respond warmly and genuinely. I have no doubt that that moment is one that will shape her future, because I’ve had one or two just like it that shaped mine.
In all honestly, in past years the Ashoka U Exchange has been something that was a ‘nice to attend’ rather than a ‘must attend’. After this year it’s going to be one of the very few conferences I will put on my 2013 calendar as soon as they announce the Exchange dates. I’m going back next year for the practical knowledge sharing and genuine relationship building it is beginning to effectively provide for those involved in this niche but growing arena. However, a core reason I will be attending again is I know wonderfully important inflection points of all sizes will be created; points which strengthen our collective belief and ability to create and support social innovators of the future.