A New Breed of Student Volunteers
Changing the Way We Change the World
Northwestern students, full of compassion and energy, have been volunteering in the Evanston community and beyond since the earliest days. Circus Solly, for example, was a colorful predecessor in the ’20s and ’30s to today’s wildly successful Dance Marathon. But here comes a new genre of volunteers—some working full time without pay or delaying graduation in order to launch their own non-profit organizations. When they add business savvy to idealism, partnering with organizations at home and abroad, the results can be remarkable.
Last winter Molly Day and Kunal Modi, then Northwestern seniors, were 8,000 miles apart yet found themselves facing strikingly similar problems. Day was in Malawi in eastern Africa, doing research in a microfinance and HIV/AIDS program; Modi was in Washington, D.C. as an AmeriCorps fellow.
“Kunal and I were sending e-mails back and forth about how frustrated we were in the non-profit sector,” says Day. “These incredibly passionate people and their organizations were consistently falling short of their goals because of lack of resources, staff, and time.”
Back in Evanston, after many runs along the lakefront that turned into brainstorming sessions, their frustration gave birth to a new idea. CampusCATALYST would give students the tools to look critically at a non-profit in their community. Then, in partnership with that organization, students would work to improve the way it functions. In turn, they would receive entrepreneurship training and the chance to see their work bear fruit. And this would all happen in Evanston, their academic home.
“Northwestern provides a lot of programs in which you can meet your neighbor,” Day explains. “It’s incredible to be able to serve at a soup kitchen, meeting and talking to people. But what if we could use what we’ve learned in class to improve the food distribution channel of the soup kitchen and be able to serve many more people? Or what if we could work on the group’s marketing and reach out to different areas of the community?”
Day and Modi say their diverse academic backgrounds make them “poster children” for the kind of students the program seeks to attract. Modi was a political science and economics major. For him, the program meant applying the theories he had studied to the person in need and to the organization wishing to help. Day’s background is in social policy and international studies. Classes in community development gave her a broad understanding of the role of the non-profit in the community.
They realized that for the program to succeed, other students needed to be as well-prepared as they were. Field activities needed to be paired with coursework in how non-profits function. Ideally, that coursework would count for academic credit, to keep students focused at their busiest times. “We can’t just come in with shiny ideals and think it’s all going to work out well,” admits Day. “When midterms and finals hit, students tend to disappear from volunteering.”
Weinberg College was incredibly receptive to their idea, says Modi, and the program found a home in the popular minor, the Business Institutions Program. Here’s how campusCATALYST works: Teams of five undergraduates apply to work on a 10-week consulting engagement with a local non-profit. They are supervised by a Weinberg instructor and an MBA student from the Kellogg School of Management. In a weekly seminar, they work through case studies, learning about the kinds of issues their non-profit might be facing. The MBA mentor hosts a weekly meeting in which students are trained in basic consulting practices and learn to set goals. At the conclusion of the course, students make a final presentation to their non-profit and the effectiveness of their help is assessed by their instructors.
In practice, the program is much more challenging than it sounds. These students, in their teens and early 20s, have not been decision-makers at any company, much less a resource-strapped non-profit. They have to come up with solutions to one of the organization’s most pressing problems, and do it all in the ten weeks allotted by the quarter system.
One group’s work last fall at Evanston’s Youth Job Center (YJC) shows it can be done. The Center needed a volunteer management system to recruit and retain volunteers. So the student team started with basic issues like risk management: did the organization need to cover volunteers with insurance, and, if so, what kind of insurance would be best? They surveyed similar organizations and compiled their findings for YJC, then selected what they considered the optimal insurance plan. Going line by line over the hundreds-of-pages-long plan with center officials was part of their service. They found a pro bono lawyer to work with the group, to ensure that their recommendations contained proper legal advice. Then they created a template contract for volunteers to sign.
“The students did a fabulous job; they were very professional,” says YJC’s executive director Sasella Smith. “They are a really valuable resource for the community, especially non-profits which don’t have the resources to hire [consultants].” Smith expects their work to have long-lasting benefits for the organization.
As of this writing, similar groups are meeting with other non-profits in Evanston. They are measuring the effectiveness of one organization’s programs for disabled adults, improving the data management system for another, and developing a business mentorship program for yet another. The latter may be key to that organization’s very survival, as a fledgling group with only one employee. The pressure is on for the students to come up with real, workable solutions.
Jean Butzen is the instructor whom Day found to teach the course, called “The Evolving Third Sector: Lessons on Non-Profit Management.” She has managed Chicago non-profits for 25 years, mostly in the preservation of affordable housing for the poor. She says she expected Northwestern students to be very intelligent but their resourcefulness and their intensity have surprised her.
“For people who have no experience working in the non-profit sector, their ability to quickly get up to speed enough to address a specific problem is really phenomenal,” says Butzen. She is also struck by the depth of their caring. “They want to do something valuable and they don’t want what they do to sit on a shelf. They are as serious about the organization’s mission as the people they are working for.”
Butzen says she used to wonder why consulting firms like McKinsey and Bain swoop onto campuses like Northwestern and hire graduating seniors as consultants, even those with no business experience. “I get it now— it’s because these students have incredible research and analytical skills.”
Like most new non-profits, campusCATALYST has itself struggled with a lack of funding: before you ask for money, you need to have a program to show people. Here is where the dedication of the founders comes in. After a 12-hour day as a business analyst at a consulting firm, Modi will call Day with a new strategy for moving cC forward. Day, the executive director, has been working for the program steadily for a year, and is just beginning to receive a salary. When asked how she has supported herself, she laughs and says, “Babysitting.” But the whole truth is more revealing than that. When probed, she says her parents, both lawyers in Boise, Idaho, were committed to social justice, her mother starting a pro bono legal clinic. By the time she was 12, both had died of cancer and left her a small inheritance for college, with a little left over. “I was thinking about what my parents would want to see me do with that money. I thought if I could really invest myself in doing something good for the community, I would feel very good about it.”
Now that the organization has tangible results to show, Day will solicit funds from community foundations as well as individuals and local corporations.
Hilarie Lieb, senior lecturer in economics and College adviser, is a mentor whose support has been critical to the program’s success. She says of Day and Modi, “They’ve found a way for Northwestern to give back to the community and to make it long term.” A lifelong social activist herself, Lieb says, “Our generation of the ’70s cared a lot, but we didn’t figure out how to do it well. This generation is caring but they are figuring out how to make a difference that’s going to last. And that’s what campusCATALYST represents.”
The program has already spread to the University of Chicago and the founders are working to bring it to campuses across the country.
As Victor Roy and Peter Luckow remind us, the Internet is bringing students together to an unprecedented degree. Facebook, a social networking website, claims a membership of more than 60 million worldwide, and photos and life experiences are shared from Evanston to Ethopia. Global mapping allows students not only to find faraway spots but to zero in on neighborhoods and count the houses and people in them. All this connectedness has helped create a whole generation of students who care deeply about those far away, especially when it comes to their health.
At Northwestern, Roy and Luckow are running GlobeMed, a national student-driven organization which addresses worldwide health concerns. It does so in an unusual way. It is not just an awareness group, educating students that millions are affected by AIDS and other diseases, although education is part of their mission. It is not a short-term project in, say, South Africa, Uganda or Guatemala, where students appear, work, and then leave.
Luckow explains, “We try to actively engage students in the global health field by linking them in long-term partnerships with community-based health organizations. And we do so in a way that really supports the needs of those organizations.”
Long-term partnerships need long-term commitments from people like Roy and Luckow. To secure the organization’s future, they are working full time from an office on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Luckow, a pre-med anthropology major, has taken a year off between his sophomore and junior years at Weinberg. Roy graduated in ’07 in the Honors Program in Medical Education but is postponing medical school at Northwestern. “My parents are waiting for the day they see me in that white coat,” he says, laughing.
Their sacrifices seem justified. GlobeMed was founded at Northwestern in 1999 by John Broach, then a pre-med student. The idea was to gather hospital and medical supplies and send them to under-equipped health care centers in developing nations. Since then it has evolved into a national network of 300 students across 13 campuses. Each group is involved in a different partnership and a different project. Here are a few:
- The Northwestern chapter has built the HOPE Health Center in Ho, Ghana, after raising $20,000 for the project.
- A group at Truman State is providing computer technology expertise to a birthing center in Haiti.
- University of Michigan members are working to develop a community health center in Mali.
At Northwestern, the growth of GlobeMed has gone hand in hand with the growth of an innovative academic program: the minor in Global Health Studies. Courses in the program bring an international perspective to the study of human health, drawing on such diverse fields as anthropology, sociology, economics, and policy studies. Global Health Studies began with 14 students in 2004, has upwards of 200 today, and promises to grow bigger still.
Roy makes the point that as Global Health has gotten stronger, “it has created much more knowledgeable and intelligent leaders who have funneled into GlobeMed and changed our approach.”
One change was to move away from GlobeMed’s original medical-supplies model.
While she was president of the Northwestern chapter, senior Kristina Redgrave says the group was collecting supplies and sending them to hospitals overseas. “The problem was that you didn’t know who was receiving them or how they were being used. We were uncomfortable with the medical supplies model but, as students, we did know how to go about changing it.” Then she took her first global health class with Michael Diamond, lecturer in the program, and solutions began to emerge. “He’s been an amazing mentor. He helped run the polio eradication campaign for Rotary International. He has helped us to challenge our model and to think through going in a new direction.”
The students learned that sending huge boxes of medical supplies can cost three times as much as sending the money there and having the supplies purchased locally. The latter also supports the local economy.
“GlobeMed has given me the opportunity to put what I’ve learned in classes into action,” says Redgrave. “It’s taught me that with a Humanities background, I can advocate for people in the health care arena.”
A cornerstone of the GlobeMed philosophy is “responsible engagement,” and it all begins with listening to partner groups’ needs. Since fall, Luckow and Roy have traveled to Uganda, Rwanda, and Ghana, visiting current and potential projects for the organization.
“When I was [at the HOPE Center] in Ghana this past summer, I didn’t touch one patient,” says Roy. “I didn’t try to be a doctor when I couldn’t be. All I did was listen to community members talk about their needs. It’s the active process of forming a relationship, because through that, everything else happens.”
The center’s head nurse, Margaret Asante, told them about the need for nutrition education—there is access to food sources like cassava and yam, but still there is malnutrition. A possible solution: a stove at the center, and cooking classes for mothers—a simple, low-cost idea that students could easily support.
And help needn’t involve traveling—much can be done right on campus. “Even those not going to Ghana are learning how a health center operates, what people in the community need, what they already have,” Roy says. And they can raise funds. To date the Northwestern chapter has raised an additional $7,000 to support projects like the community-based nutrition program at the HOPE Center. And Colleen Fant, co-president of the chapter, has just received a grant to work at the Center for a year following her graduation in June.
While projects like these were being launched, Luckow was busy coordinating the second annual GlobeMed Global Health Summit at Northwestern. The April conference was a success, harnessing the energy of over 90 members from 15 campuses across the country. They hammered out solutions to common problems and heard international experts on health and human rights from organizations such as Partners in Health, Opportunity International, Global Fund for Women, and the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria.
They also made a strong case for supporting the organization and hoped to attract new sponsors. Since 2007, the Abbott Fund, the charitable arm of Abbott Laboratories, has been the mainstay of their financial backing—paying their salaries, travel, and other expenses.
The Abbott Fund appears to be a near-perfect match for GlobeMed, since their mission is to create healthier global communities by investing in creative ideas and expanding access to healthcare. In addition, Jeff Richardson, vice president of the Fund, says he was impressed on a personal level with the passion and dedication of Roy and Luckow. In turn, the Northwestern pair say Richardson’s advice and guidance have been invaluable to the young organization. Through Richardson, Roy was invited to speak last spring on a panel discussing the university health movement for the Global Health Council in Washington, D.C.
Both Luckow and Roy came to an early awareness of the world’s poor and their health problems. Roy’s grandfather was a doctor who served rural people in west Bengal in eastern India and he himself has worked in Calcutta with an organization which teaches street children entrepreneurship skills. During high school, Luckow went on mission trips with his church to Mexico and Costa Rica. He was struck by the disparity between access to health care in those places and in his native Deerfield, Illinois.
“The people I met were warm, caring, and welcoming. When one of their kids came down with a fever it could be life-threatening. If they didn’t walk three hours to the health clinic, that child could die. I began to think of how I could dedicate my life to those who don’t have the same access to health care that we do.”
With the spread of GlobeMed, Luckow and Roy hope to harness the same kind of passionate activism in students across the nation.
Says Roy, “GlobeMed is the portal through which students can go from point A—concerned about global health but don’t know how to make their lives about it—to point B, where they can see this as a life commitment.”Back to top