Given our history of social activism, it’s not surprising that Grinnell College attracts students who want to help others. Students in Eliza Willis’s tutorial, Making a Difference in the War Against Global Poverty, are learning how to turn that desire into a reality.
Willis, professor of political science, urges her students to think small. She encourages her students to find novel, grassroots approaches they can implement, and to develop the skills they’ll need to bring the projects to fruition.
Her 13 students come from as far away as Tanzania, Malaysia, Jamaica, China, and Brazil, and from as close as Iowa City and Chicago. Lily Jamaludin ’14, says “We have so many different backgrounds and interests. You can see it in the projects we choose.” She adds “It’s my favorite class, and it’s also the most intense. In high school, we never did discussions like this. Everyone wants to speak. It’s an active and dynamic class, and everyone is really amazing.”
It's also Sam Mulopulos’s (’14) favorite class. “I love this tutorial. It’s a lot of passionate, opinionated people,” he says. With a grin, he adds, “There have been shouting matches over microcredit and social entrepreneurism.”
In the class, students learn how small, concrete steps can make major differences in the lives of those living in poverty. They critically evaluate programs such as Partners in Health, Grameen Bank, and Acumen Fund.
Willis, with the help of Doug Cutchins ′93, director of social commitment, also arranged for several alumni to share their experiences. She says “It’s overwhelming when you look at all the problems in the world. I wanted them to see Grinnell alums who made the world a better place.”
The alumni, who visited campus or Skyped, spoke about several different approaches to tackling poverty:
- Education: Elizabeth Powley ’93 founded Every Child is My Child, an organization that provides education for promising students in Rwanda and Burundi;
- Economic development: Ben Hodgdon ’96 works with Rainforest Alliance on sustainable community forestry in Mexico;
- Human rights activism: Luna Ranjit ’00 founded Adhikaar, which helps support New York’s Nepalese immigrants; and
- Microfinance: Jeff Raderstong ’09, co-founded Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell, a local and international microfinance organization.
Students talked to the alumni, several of whom are Wall Alumni Service Award winners, about the programs they’re involved with and lessons they’ve learned. Mulopulos says “It’s great to be able to see and speak to people who we aspire to be. To talk to people who are actually doing social justice work.”
For their final project, each student is creating a mock Wall Alumni Service Award application. The exercise gives the students hands-on experience with grant writing, an often-necessary skill for social entrepreneurs. It also gives them a chance to put their own ideas to the test.
Many of the projects tackle education, agriculture, or healthcare. Mulopulos, for example, is working on a plan for sustainable agriculture and irrigation in Uganda. They’ve all learned that their plans will need to be flexible, though. No plan will work, Jamaludin says, unless the community supports it. “You have to meet the people, really listen to them, and meet their needs,” she says. And she looks forward to doing just that.