Innovation. Social entrepreneurship. Experiential learning. Collaboration. Leadership. These are the buzzwords that educators and students are throwing around college campuses right now. As small liberal arts schools confront the challenges and opportunities that the 21st century, these are the concepts that are increasingly forming higher education’s response. Middlebury is at the forefront of this movement to explore and launch new educational initiatives, with a myriad of programs falling under the umbrella of the College’s roject on Creativity and Innovation. But sometimes all these ideas and concepts seem abstract and amorphous: how do they actually take shape? How are they put into practice? How are students growing as learners and leaders?
Enter Sarah James ’16.5 and Winson Law ’16. Sarah and Winson are embodiments of a new, engaged kind of learner. They have embraced the exciting and dynamic exploration occurring in education today. They have plunged into the opportunities Middlebury offers to put the so-called “buzzwords” of education into real and meaningful practice.
Both Sarah and Winson are members of the first class of graduates from MiddCORE at Sierra Nevada College. They spent four weeks this past summer building skills as leaders, communicators, problem solvers and innovators in MiddCORE’s intensive immersion program. This past fall, Sarah and Winson applied and were named members of the second class of fellows for the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship. As fellows, they will work with the Center over the next two and a half years to develop skills as social entrepreneurs. The fellowship provides the students with extensive training and mentorship, plus a financial award of $8,000 to further support their ventures.
I had the great pleasure to sit down with Sarah and Winson to hear about the endeavors they are pursuing. Here, they reflect on the opportunities of the fellowship, the impact of MiddCORE and the people who have inspired them most in their lives.
Cate Costley: What aspects of the fellowship are most exciting to you?
Sarah James: What interested me most about the fellowship was that wasn’t so focused on creating a specific project or a product as much as it was us – the students – and giving us the skills and the confidence to think about and engage with social issues. I was a little nervous about applying because I felt like I didn’t know if I had everything figured out in terms of a finite project. But that really isn’t the Center’s approach. We are 19 or 20 years old; it’s not feasible to think that we’re going to come up with the answers right away. I think that saying, “I don’t have the answers,” is a lot more powerful and beneficial to a community than saying, “I have it all figured out and I’m just going to do this and this is the right thing and this is making your community a better place.” If we say, “Let me be the student, let me learn from you and let me be a part of a greater community-based solution,” I feel like that’s the way that change will come up more authentically and then also have a greater impact.
So, I’m so excited to work with the people through the Center and the other students who have been chosen for the fellowship to think about creating impact. I’m really excited to come together to think about different social issues in creative ways. Too often, we aren’t really given the skills or tools, or even the space, to really think about how we could be a part of solutions, but this fellowship gives us that space and those tools.
Winson Law: I’m really drawn to the cohort aspect of the fellowship. It’s just so cool to be in a cohort of people, working together, learning from and with each other, relying on each other for support. I am drawn to this kind of community of people who are like-minded, have similar values and really want to do something. I’m really grateful for this opportunity and hope that I can do something that will be impactful. This is a two-and-a-half year fellowship, so it’s a long-term commitment, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where it goes.
Cate: What impact did MiddCORE have on you and how has it influenced your approach to the fellowship?
Winson: MiddCORE gave me a way of thinking. It gave me a way to approach problems in a way that I didn’t think about before. The idea that no idea is a bad idea until you really think about it – that’s what MiddCORE impressed upon me. It’s frustrating for me now, as a MiddCORE alum, to see how quickly people will say, “No, that’s not going to work because, because, because, because.” It’s so much more productive to say, “This is why it could work and here’s the potential that this could have.” I think that shift in mindset from what’s impossible to what’s possible is huge for me. It’s really allowed me to think about solutions in ways that I couldn’t before.
I’d also say the relationships I’ve forged with the MiddCORE community are so important. It’s wonderful to have a network of people who have the same vocabulary and know how to greenhouse an idea. And you might think I’m just using buzzwords, but these buzzwords mean something; they’re not just buzzwords. I truly believe in greenhousing and cultivating an idea. I think MiddCORE has been a huge part of giving me these key skills, tool sets and frameworks.
Sarah: MiddCORE definitely got wheels in my head turning in a way that I didn’t expect. MiddCORE covers so many skills in a short amount of time that are both so practical and are also pretty hard to describe. For example, on the practical side, I learned how to cold call. But, on the more conceptual side, I also tapped into my creativity in MiddCORE. Ultimately, I think that all of those little pieces come together into a greater sense of confidence. That’s what I took away from MiddCORE: I have the skills that you need in order to be successful in an internship or in creating your own project, but I also have a stronger sense of myself, a stronger sense of confidence.
Also, I came away [from MiddCORE] wanting to create social change. I had started to build the skills that I would need to do that, and I feel like this fellowship is the next step in that process.
Cate: What are some of your hopes and goals for the next semester, next summer, next year? Do you have any inkling of what kind of social innovation you would like to create?
Sarah: I think it’s really great that the fellowship does not focus on having a particular end goal, necessarily. I think that having a defined final outcome would be a really limiting way to approach something like this, and I feel like that’s not the Center’s approach. All of the mentors thus far have been very focused on helping us grow as individuals. They are helping foster a creativity and a curiosity in us that will lead to something that really will create sustainable change.
I have an idea of what I want to focus on, but by working with the Center and the other fellows, I’ll really be able to take a step back and look at how can I best serve the community and how can I best help. So, it’s not so much focused on creating something just to create something, but rather creating something that makes a difference.
But in terms of my idea, my project at MiddCORE was to transform a space in downtown Cleveland, which is where I’m from. It’s a Rust Belt city, so there are lots of factories and abandoned buildings. My idea was to take this space and transform it into green space, which is not that common in a city like Cleveland. That space could then be used as a teaching tool for sustainability education for kids from inner-city Cleveland, because that’s really not a part of the curriculum. Furthermore, because there is not a lot of green space, these students really aren’t connected to the environment. I believe there are populations of people – in Cleveland, in Middlebury as well, all over this country and all over the world – who just aren’t getting the information about climate change and who aren’t connected to the environment because they’re not part of a green space. So, my idea would create green space and use it as a tool to help them learn about the looming climate crisis and how they can be a part of the change.
If I don’t pursue that particular project, I would still like to investigate the intersection between urban and social issues and the environmental crisis. I want to ask the questions: In what ways can we solve the environmental crisis that will also solve social issues? How are those two related? These questions are what I had started to think about at MiddCORE, and now I’m still thinking about how them and maybe how they could be solved together.
Winson: I think John Isham put it well when he said it’s about the people, not the idea or the project or the end goal. My Innovation Challenge during MiddCORE was to increase financial accessibility to gap years, and maybe that’s something I’ll pick up again, maybe not.
In terms of goals for the next semester, it’s about taking classes that are going to contribute to skill-building. I’m hopefully taking GIS in the spring and I’m taking the sophomore seminar on the liberal arts to further learn about what education means and what I’m doing here. For the summer, I really want to build skills and have experiences in a high-intensity type of environment. I’d love to work for IDEO. I know that’s really out there, but you’ve got to dream big and IDEO would be awesome! Or I’d love to work for a social enterprise that’s doing really well and could take me under their wing. I want to say, “How do you make this work? I want to learn from you.” There are lots of options and I feel so thankful that the fellowship can help support me.
Cate: Who have been some of your greatest mentors?
Winson: Jessica Holmes [Director of MiddCORE and an Associate Professor of Economics at Middlebury] is definitely someone who pushes you and challenges you to do things you think you can’t do – and that’s really special, I think. It’s a quality I haven’t seen in a lot of other people.
I have also had other mentors in my life who have given me the permission to grow. And I need to continue to do that for myself and for other people. We all need the permission and skills to grow.
Sarah: I feel very lucky to have had a lot of really great mentors in my life. Definitely my mom and my dad are two of my biggest mentors.
Then, MiddCORE gave me the opportunity to interact with many different mentors – and we call them “mentors,” but they really did become mentors to me. One person in particular who I’ll always think back on from MiddCORE is Governor Christine Gregoire. She was an incredible, articulate, kind and intelligent woman. When I was speaking with her, it was very empowering to see a woman who had really pursued her career with the intent of making the world a better place. And for her, that was politics. And for me, I think it could be social entrepreneurship or social activism. And so, to be able to hear from her how she has been guided in the past several decades was really inspiring to me. And hearing it from a female was especially inspiring. She’s someone I’ll always think back on.
One final mentor was a man who I worked with over my Gap Semester. He’s a human rights lawyer in Cleveland. And the work that I did with him was very powerful. He was also trying to create social change, in a different way, as a lawyer. He really got me to start thinking about how did I want to contribute to making the world a better place. How could I engage with social issues? And for him, it was in the response of the law. For me, I feel like it really is coming up with a grassroots approach to create change. I want to be a part of community and to work from within community to have a lasting impact.
To wrap it up, I have no doubt that Sarah and Winson will create lasting impact. They are thoughtful, articulate and engaged individuals who are actively pursuing a meaningful education. They are the future of the liberal arts, and it promises to be a bright one.