Planting the seeds

Ferrum College alum realizes a childhood dream; helps others do the same

When Bernice Cobbs was a young girl growing up in the rural South, she never saw going to college as a realistic dream. In her community, just graduating high school was a major accomplishment. Until integration came in the fifth grade, she couldn’t even expect to get the same quality grade school education her white peers expected.

“The white students, more so than the black students, would talk about going to college,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to teach school. The reality was I could not see myself going to college because no one in my family had gone. I simply understood that obtaining a college degree was my ticket to becoming a teacher. Fearful of the laughter, I held the dream close for many years.”

In fact, Cobbs married her husband, Hildred, and gave birth to her two children, Bradley and Kimberly, before deciding to pursue her dream. The choice wasn’t easy – the commitment of time and money were difficult to come by while raising a family. Still, with encouragement from her husband, she earned an associate’s degree from Virginia Western Community College.

With that first obstacle overcome, the dream that had seemed out of reach suddenly became attainable. Cobbs graduated from Ferrum College in 1998 with honors and an Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award.

Cobbs had grown from a girl who feared being laughed at for her ambition into a woman whose horizons were boundless. She went on to earn master’s degrees from the University of Virginia and Radford University and, finally, a doctorate in educational leadership from Virginia Tech.

For Cobbs, equipping herself to lift up the people around her was as important as the degrees themselves. She has won numerous teaching awards, worked as principal at three schools, and served on many school and community boards.

“My community and educational involvements are certainly important to me,” she says. “However, my life’s mission lies with serving the underprivileged and committing to the welfare of women, children, families, and the extended community whom I come in contact with on a daily basis.”

Because education changed her life and opened a world of possibility to her that she couldn’t have dreamed of as a child, Cobbs strives to provide the same opportunities for others — especially those facing challenges similar to those she faced herself.

“I believe that an education is the pathway out of poverty,” she says. “For this reason, I often volunteer my time with women and young adults who are trying to further their education. This might include helping to study to pass a class exam or a national certification exam, giving advice on the ‘what next,’ gathering resources for their classes, helping to apply for scholarships, and sharing my knowledge.”

It’s a pathway that can change the course of generations to come. Cobbs’ own children are both college graduates — Bradley from Carson-Newman College and Kimberly from Virginia Commonwealth University.

For Cobbs, the benefits of education far outweigh the costs, even when those costs are high. It’s that knowledge, more than any award or degree she might earn, that continues to drive her to work toward the ideals of service embodied by Ferrum College and the Sullivan Foundation. She sums it up, succinctly, in one deeply held belief:

“My belief is that, in order for the American Dream to be achievable for all, individuals like me must plant the seeds of hope in those less fortunate so the impossible becomes possible.”

Past, present, future

Sullivan Foundation events continue to grow, evolve

Ignite participants gather for an intimate
talk by social entrepreneur Tom D’Eri

Through its summer programs, special events, and retreat weekends, The Sullivan Foundation has been promoting service and social entrepreneurship beyond its awards and scholarships for a long time. It’s easy to make the case that 2015 was the Foundation’s best year ever, and 2016 promises to be even better.

The most recent Ignite Retreat for social entrepreneurship, held in October, drew students from 22 universities across the Sullivan network. Held in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, the retreat was the largest to date, with nearly 100 participants exploring ways to create positive change in the communities around them.

With piles of cardboard, post-it notes, and markers strewn throughout the conference center, participants bounced between workshops offered by the facilitators. Topics ranged from unlocking creative solutions when brainstorming to networking and pitching social venture ideas.

Friends and alumni of the Foundation gathered in Charlotte, North Carolina on the evening of October 1, 2015, to share some social time and forge new connections. The next alumni reception, to be held in Alexandria, Virginia, will take place on April 14, 2016

Saturday evening concluded with a special talk from Tom D’Eri, founder of Rising Tide Carwash, a social venture that provides meaningful employment to individuals with autism. D’Eri’s talk served as an inspirational jumping-off point for Sunday’s Prototype Crowdfunding Competition. Students pitched projects they had worked on throughout the weekend in hopes of winning a cash prize to help make their ideas realities.

“The greatest thing I walked away with from the Ignite Retreat was realizing that if I want to make a change, don’t wait until after graduation, after next year, or even tomorrow,” says participant Qadira Muhammad. “I need to begin right now!”

Two more Ignite Retreats will take place in 2016. This year, however, will feature a new addition to the lineup that promises to expand the scope of the Foundation’s campus impact. The spring retreat — scheduled for April 8-10 in Raleigh, N.C. — will include the first-ever Sullivan Foundation Faculty and Campus Leadership Summit.

The Sullivan Summit is designed to promote deeper understanding of the social innovation and entrepreneurship community among faculty and campus leaders across the Sullivan network. Through social events designed to bring together change makers of all stripes and a full slate of workshops and panels, the new event will inspire fresh thinking and expose participants to tools that can be applied on their campuses and in their classrooms.

The summit is designed to allow participants to share best practices, create a new peer-learning community, and get feedback that can accelerate change when they return home. More information is available on the events page at sullivanfdn.org.

Ignite participants gather for a group photo

Born to Heal: Bradley Firchow Earns the Sullivan Award at Oglethorpe University

Working in a hospice isn’t for the faint-hearted, but for Bradley Firchow, the 2019 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award winner at Oglethorpe University (pictured above, center),  it’s an opportunity to celebrate the remarkable lives of the patients under his care.

Firchow, a senior majoring in biopsychology, has volunteered at the Crossroads Hospice in Atlanta for the past four years. A native of Russellville, Kentucky, currently living in Woodstock, Georgia, the 22-year-old spends hours at a time with chronically ill and elderly people nearing the ends of their earthly tenure. And he finds beauty and significance in every moment.

“This work has been particularly meaningful to me as I have been able to spend quality time with folks who may not have family nearby or, in some case, no family at all,” Firchow says. “This opportunity has allowed me to share my loves of visual art, music and literature with my patients, which can be very therapeutic for them as they grapple with mortality.”

It’s also a chance to collect and permanently record the stories they have to tell for future generations. “My favorite part of my work with Crossroads is working on the Life Journal Project, which documents significant events, places, stories and people in a person’s life and preserves them for their family in the form of a hardbound book,” Firchow says. “Spending hours with patients learning their life stories can be transformative for them as they reflect on a lifetime. I value my time with my patients as their stories often offer bits of wisdom for me that I can incorporate into my life and my approach to living.”

There are easier ways to give back to the community, but a quick review of Firchow’s history of service will tell you he doesn’t go looking for easy things to do. After his freshman year, for example, he and a group of fellow students spent nine days in the mountains of Nicaragua, serving more than 1,000 patients in rural communities like Sacacli and La Corneta in a clinical praxis for Global Brigades, a student-led nonprofit focused on sustainable health and economic development.

“As volunteers, we filled prescriptions under the supervision of a pharmacist, assisted the medical professionals, took patient histories, did triage, provided childcare during doctor’s appointments, and worked with community organizers to strengthen public health infrastructure in the communities we served.”

They got their hands dirty, too, he notes. “We also constructed eco-latrines, concrete flooring in houses and a water pipeline in La Corneta so people have access to indoor plumbing, can prevent exposure to soil parasites in their homes, and have access to potable water.”

Firchow has also served as Oglethorpe’s Blood Drive Coordinator and volunteers for events produced by the university’s Center for Civic Engagement. He has led two Alternative Spring Break excursions—one to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida to perform invasive species maintenance, environmental cleanup and trail-blazing for the Florida National Scenic Trail system, and one to Charlotte, N.C. to work with LGBTQ+ youth organizations after the state passed HB2, a controversial law many see as discriminatory against gay and transgender individuals.

And because he apparently still doesn’t have enough to do, Firchow volunteers at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) through the Phi Delta Epsilon International Medical Fraternity. “My fraternity facilitates art projects with the kids,” Firchow says. “We also annually host an Anatomy Fashion Show as a benefit for CHOA. We find models on campus who are willing to wear spandex and have an organ system painted on their bodies by art students. Then they walk down a runway, modeling their organ system, as a member of my fraternity reads a narrative about the system and, sometimes, a child at CHOA who has a disease relevant to that system.”

Looking at his track record of service, Firchow clearly has a career in medicine in mind. “My passion is rural health,” he says. Growing up in Kentucky and West Virginia “exposed me to the difficulties of accessing quality healthcare in the U.S. Geographic and socioeconomic factors determine what level of healthcare a person will receive and, despite the incredible advances in modern medicine and public health, many people have poor access to care—and even when they have access, the care available in their community is limited.”

Firchow has also served an internship with the Child Development Studies Team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), focusing on mental health issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Tourette Syndrome. “Being part of a group of people … who care about the health of our nation’s rural residents has been extremely rewarding and has only deepened my passion for serving the types of communities I grew up in,” Firchow notes.

After graduation this May, Firchow will work for Atlanta-headquartered Childspring International, which provides life-saving surgeries for children from developing communities, and then attend medical school in Fall 2021. He plans to practice medicine in a rural community. “After medical school, I’m interested in CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service program so I can gain boots-on-the-ground sensibilities and approach medicine from a public health perspective early on in my career,” he says. “I think it’s imperative that physicians incorporate public health philosophy into their practice of medicine, and I want to set the tone for my career in medicine early on. Later in life, I would be interested in running for political office or perhaps working for a public health agency or NGO.”

For all his hard work and service to both his community and the world at large, Firchow said he was floored to learn he had received the Sullivan Award. “At Oglethorpe, the Sullivan Award is one of the highest awards a student can receive, so when our provost announced my name, my jaw must have been somewhere beneath my feet. I was honored to be recognized for doing work that I try not to make a big fuss about—and that, honestly, I didn’t even know other people knew that I do. Receiving the award reinforces my passion to tackle issues I care about that affect people I care about.”

Letter from the President

As always, thank you to our students, to our faculty, to our alumni, and to our friends for taking a look at the new issue of Engage. This marks our tenth edition and our fifth year of producing this magazine, and I hope it’s been as enjoyable for you to peruse as it has been for us to create. Nothing brings the staff at the Sullivan Foundation more pride than digging into what our schools are up to in service and social entrepreneurship.

As I scan through the pages in this issue, I notice a trend. Building community is a crucial part of creating a better world, and our schools are working hard to create supportive, innovative communities that serve on their campuses and in their communities.

At the same time, the Foundation is at the dawn of a new day in which we hope to broaden our own community building efforts—expanding our media outreach, increasing our programming, and strengthening the ties between Sullivan Award and Scholarship recipients, alumni, and friends. We all work better when we work together. The stories in this issue are an inspiration for us as we continue to improve and become an ever more beneficial presence in the lives of students.

I’m also proud to feature several schools in this issue that we’ve never written about before. It’s amazing that we can fill ten magazines with stories and still have more schools left to write about.

But that’s the nature of the Sullivan family. Thanks for reading, and please stay in touch,

Stephan L. McDavid,
President

Letter from the President

Hello to all, and welcome to the 11th issue of Engage. As always, it’s an exciting time here at the Sullivan Foundation. Our Ignite retreats and faculty summits saw record attendance in 2018, and we’ll continue to expand our offerings in 2019. Our faculty fellows have used our resources to do amazing things on campuses and around the world. And our award winners are inspirational people making real, tangible changes in lives and communities.

You’ll meet some of these outstanding people inside the pages of this issue. Whether it’s Randolph-Macon College travelling to support a community in Guatemala, award recipient Cindy Jackson’s inspiring work to treat burn victims all over South America, or the quietly inspirational life of late alumnus Ray Bottom, who dedicated himself to his own community for decades at Randolph-Macon—it’s the work of people that make this community the amazing thing it is.

As always, we want to hear your stories, so feel free to send us one if you have something you wish to share. We might just be able to feature it here or on our website.

Speaking of the website, we’ve revamped it with a new design and new features to make it more informative and useful for members of the Sullivan family. Drop by and take a look when you get a chance. It’s at sullivanfdn.org.

Thanks as always for your interest in the work we do and for doing the outstanding work that you do. You continue to make us proud.

Stephan L. McDavid,

President

The world inside a house

Sullivan school Washington and Lee combines international dialogue and service for a unique student experience

 

A Service House student chops meat while working at the Campus Kitchen at Washington and Lee, a project that reuses food that would otherwise go to waste. The CKWL is a primary service project for house residents.

During a snowball fight last year at Washington and Lee University’s Global Service House, the camaraderie of students could be heard in their laughter.

“It was really exciting, because a lot of us had never played in snow before,” says Sofia Sequeira, a native Costa Rican and the house’s former resident adviser. “It really made us bond and become close friends.”

A novel idea

Students goof around while carving pumpkins

The facility opened in fall 2012 and houses 17 students—approximately 60 percent international students and 40 percent domestic students.

In addition to bringing international and domestic students together, the house unites students that care about service. When Larry Boetsch, director of W&L’s Center for International Education, was researching the university’s Global Learning Initiative, he discovered that a high percentage of international students volunteer in the local community.

“What satisfies me the most is that the students themselves have really taken the initiative to make this work,” says Boetsch. “They’re a terrific group of students, and they understand exactly what we are trying to do. We haven’t set any rules or guidelines with regards to the way the house functions; the students have done it on their own. So they are responsible for its success.”

Bringing it all home

Sofia Sequeira

The experience of living there is as illuminating for domestic students as it is for international students.

“I have learned more about the cultures of other students and about the world than I ever thought I could without actually leaving the United States,” says New Jersey native Maya Epelbaum.

Trevin Ivory from Oklahoma City agrees. He and his housemate, Mohammed Adudayyeh, who is a Palestinian from the West Bank, have formed a friendship and started a dialogue.

“Mohammed and I have had many discussions about the differences in our cultures,” he says. “He’s Muslim and I’m Christian, so we’ve talked about the differences between our two religions. We all know each other and we all like each other, so it’s a very fun time. It also allows me to interact with people I wouldn’t normally be able to, such as students from Brazil or Germany.”

Serving side by side

In addition to learning from each other and serving together, students in the house find time to have fun

The students have provided their peers with new opportunities by introducing each other to their personal volunteer projects.

“A lot of students are really committed to community service, and they invite other students to their activities, such as volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, recycling, or tutoring children in Lexington,” says Sequeira.

The facility is, in fact, a tangible manifestation of W&L’s Global Learning Strategy.

“The students in the Global Service House today are a special group,” Boetsch says. “Honestly, I think it is an achievement of which we should be very proud and something which, in terms of the whole global learning initiative, is absolutely essential.”

This article is an edited version of a piece that appeared originally on W&L’s website. For more W&L news, visit columns.wlu.edu.

Sullivan Flashback

The Sullivans were art collectors and donators, and their collection lives on at Vanderbilt University

George and Mary Mildred Sullivan in 1906

After the death of Algernon Sydney Sullivan in 1887, Mary Mildred Sullivan and the couples’ son, George, went through a long period of bereavement—Mary Mildred Sullivan barely made it through the funeral, and went on to wear black for the rest of her life.

As was the family tradition, however, the mother and son team eventually began looking for ways to serve the public. Perhaps, in addition to their natural inclination to serve, pouring themselves into work was a way of coping—doing exactly what Algernon Sydney Sullivan would have done.

Mary Mildred Sullivan was a southerner, and her continued concern for the recovery of her home after the Civil War led her to find ways to contribute to its wellbeing.

Seated Woman, a 19th century oil painting by French artist Jules Adolphe Goupil, was donated to Peabody College by the Sullivans and remains at Vanderbilt University as part of the Sullivan Collection

Among her many endeavors, she supported and solicited donations for the Southern Industrial Education Association, established to aid so-called industrial schools, which provided basic education in areas in the South where public education still didn’t exist.

At the same time, George Sullivan had been building a vast art collection, visiting galleries in between his periodic illnesses (George, like his father, had poor luck with health). He collected prints, artworks, rare books, and historical documents.

While the Sullivans may have been great lovers of art for themselves, they were more interested in how their collection could be of service to others, and they did not hold it privately for long. They began disbursing their holdings in gifts to colleges and libraries.

Mary Mildred Sullivan in her black mourning attire after the death of Algernon Sydney Sullivan

The first major donation was to the George Peabody College for Teachers, which still exists today as part of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. A friend of Mary Mildred Sullivan’s who was also a graduate of the school told her that art teachers there were in need of a study collection. The Sullivans talked it over and quickly agreed, with George proclaiming, “we have found a splendid outlet for our desire to aid students.”

All told, the Sullivans donated some 10,000 works of art to various institutions.

Peabody College flourished into one of the finest schools of education in the nation in the early part of the 20th century. Its on-site high school, where aspiring teachers did their student teaching, was among the first Southern high schools to be desegregated in the early 1960s.

Peabody College’s main library as it appears today

By the late 1970s, however, Peabody had fallen on hard times, with a financially untenable situation. Fortunately, a solution was found as the school merged with its across-the-street neighbor, Vanderbilt University, where it remains to this day as the Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

It is routinely cited by U.S. News and World Report as the top graduate school of education in America.

The Sullivan Collection lives on at Vanderbilt today as well, with 86 catalogued pieces of art (curators believe there are many more that have yet to be catalogued). George Sullivan even followed up he and his mother’s art donation with another gift in 1937, for the construction of painting storage racks.

The racks are still in use.

Planting the SEEDs

Sewanee’s social entrepreneurship intern program exposes students to new worlds

 

Michael Benjamin with founder of Grameen Bank Dr. Muhammad Yunus at the 2010 Africa-Middle East Regional Microcredit Summit held in Kenya

Since 2007, students from Sewanee: The University of the South have been leaving their mountaintop campus in Tennessee and crossing the globe in search of new experiences and a world-class education in social entrepreneurship. Through the Social Entrepreneurship Education Program (SEED), summer internships take them to places like Bangladesh, China, and Indonesia, as well as some places at home in the U.S.

The SEED program is a crucial part of a surge in social entrepreneurship education at Sewanee over the last decade, which has included the introduction of new social entrepreneurship academic tracks as well as heavy student participation in the Sullivan Foundation’s Ignite retreats.

Michael Mansfield and Taylor Triplett in a Bangladeshi village with a borrower who used her loan to buy a cow

SEED is a fully immersive, 8-week program that combines the internship with a 1-week intensive pre-business training course where students get an introduction to finance, accounting, and entrepreneurship through

lectures and workshops with faculty and alumni.

Axton Reilly carrying a 32-kilogram wheat bag for a World Food Program beneficiary

Participants in SEED get to work as interns at some of the most innovative and successful socially-conscious companies in the world. For instance, in Bangladesh, students work with the Grameen Bank, which describes itself as the “Bank for the Poor.” It provides credit to the poorest of poor Bangladeshi citizens with the aim of lifting them out of poverty. Despite requiring no collateral for their loans, the bank has an amazing 97% repayment rate.

“Microfinance” organizations like Grameen Bank have been the focus of most of the internships, but students also get to work with more traditional, well-known institutions, like the United Nations World Food Program, the world’s largest humanitarian organization.

Students receive a special certificate for completing the program, but the biggest thing they get is exposure to a new way of thinking that sends many of them on to careers making a living by making life better for others.

Thanks to Sewanee for their help preparing this article and providing photos.

A bridge to the community

Newberry College’s Muller Center brings Lutheran philosophy to community service and individual growth

The 2017-2018 class of Muller Student Research Fellows: Sarah Johnson, Benjamin Herring, and Mariah Lee

On the second floor of Newberry College’s Keller Hall stands a bridge that links the 161-year-old institution to the rest of Newberry County, South Carolina, and beyond.

Though not a physical bridge, the Muller Center brings together faculty, staff, students, and the community for service in the Lutheran liberal arts traditions of civic engagement, ethical deliberation, and vocational exploration.

It’s the kind of community-college connection that has been a successful model at so many Sullivan network schools. And one of its most recent student research fellows happens to be a Sullivan Award recipient.

Going beyond volunteerism

Benjamin Herring, 2018 Sullivan Award recipient and Newberry College Muller Student Research Fellow

A major purpose of the Muller Center is connecting faculty, staff, and students to community organizations in and around Newberry, so that they may greaten their impact, give back to the community, and expand their understandings of vocation, ethics, and civic engagement.

Dr. Krista E. Hughes, the Center’s director, says that the Muller Center’s three central tenets, vocational exploration, ethical deliberation, and civic engagement, go beyond simple volunteerism or activism.

“Volunteering in the community is fundamental, but the center emphasizes the importance of doing the work, reflecting on what one’s values are, and on how one has changed self and community through the work,” says Hughes.

The college’s AmeriCorps VISTA works out of the center to cultivate long-term relationships with community partners. The AmeriCorps VISTA program, or Volunteers in Service to America, is a federal program designed to alleviate poverty through volunteerism.

Research and reflection

Mariah Lee uses part of her fellowship to study microbiology

Since its inception, the Center has provided not only chances to volunteer with local community partner organizations, but also opportunities to independently work, research, and deliberate.

These initiatives include the Sojourners Initiative, a program engaging second and third-year students in self-reflection and community service projects; as well as the Muller Student Research Fellowship, which guides and funds select student service projects to connect coursework and research to civic and community needs.

The Center also works with the College’s civic engagement courses, offers travel grants for off-campus service coursework, and provides a fellowship for faculty and staff, along with a host of other current and future programs.

“We connect people,” says Hughes. “It’s what we do.”

One of Sullivan’s own

As part of her fellowship, which she used to study literacy in early education, Sarah Johnson shows a young student how to use a “Little Free Library” box

Among the most recent batch of student research fellows is Benjamin Herring, a Hopkins, South Carolina native, who also had the distinction of receiving a Sullivan Award at his recent graduation.

A summer internship in Quito, Ecuador was the foundation for his project. Combining on-the-ground experience with research, Herring sought to develop a strategic management system specifically for international non-governmental organizations. Locally, he worked to educate about the global aspects of civic engagement.

The types of projects students can use the fellowship for are wide-ranging. Sarah Johnson and Mariah Lee, the other two members of Herring’s fellowship class, worked on vastly different topics. Johnson focused on early literacy in education while Lee conducted microbiology research and studied vaccination rates among the elderly in Newberry County.

Vocation in the Lutheran tradition

Newberry is a Lutheran school, and that Lutheran philosophy is central to the Muller Center’s mission. The center was founded in January 2015 with funds bequeathed by John D. Muller to support students pursuing ministry to church and world.

“[Martin] Luther understood vocation as being something that everyone has,” says Hughes. “A lot of people hear the word ‘vocation’ and they think about a tech school or a trade school, or if they’re Roman Catholic, they may have associations with people who are in the clergy, but for Luther, he really felt like all people have a calling.”

Hughes, also an associate professor of religion at Newberry College, says that one’s calling by God is “where one’s own gifts and talents meet the world’s needs in a unique way.”

As the Muller Center enters its third full year and a bright future ahead, more and more students will discover just what their gifts and talents are, and where the world needs them.

 

This article was adapted from a piece by James Salter that originally appeared in The Newberry Observer. To read the original, visit newberryobserver.com. Additional reporting comes from Newberry College. To learn more, visit newberry.edu/news.

The buzz about social entrepreneurship

George Mason’s Honey Bee Initiative promotes sustainability, teaches future entrepreneurs

Students and faculty work at the apiary on the George Mason campus

George Mason University has a vision for itself. That vision? To be “the best university for the world.” It’s a bold goal—the kind of thinking that makes a great Sullivan school.

Sometimes, achieving big things means encountering small ones. Small creatures, in this case: bees. Since 2012, the GMU campus in Fairfax, Virginia, has been host to an apiary as part of its Honey Bee Initiative.

Since the ribbon cutting on that first apiary, the initiative has expanded to 50 apiaries across Northern Virginia. It has three primary goals: conducting applied research to combat colony collapse, providing hands-on teaching about sustainable beekeeping practices and social entrepreneurship, and establishing collaborative partnerships to improve the security and sustainability of the Northern Virginia ecosystem.

Going global

Germán Perilla works with students at the apiary

The decline of honey bee populations is an ecological crisis that affects not only the United States, however, but much of the world.

That led Germán Perilla, who is the director of the initiative, and Lisa Gring-Pemble, Director of Social Entrepreneurship and Global Impact at GMU’s Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, to think about taking their project global. Thus, a new course was born: Social Impact and Entrepreneurship. The immersive course takes students to South America for 10 days during spring break to get a granular look at local businesses that not only make a profit, but also help people and the environment.

Francis Fuller, a senior accounting major, took the course this spring along with 14 other students. Once she arrived, she found herself in a very unusual, and at least a little uncomfortable, position: she had never been around so many bees.

But there she was, in a beekeeper’s suit, in the Santander region of Colombia, hearing the insects buzzing around her head.

“To be around that many bees and not running from them was an experience,” says Fuller.

The Honey Bee Initiative has provided about 180 beehives to the Santander region through its social entrepreneurship outreach, making it a natural fit for the course.

An immersive ten days

In addition to touring some of those hives and speaking with the beekeepers—mostly women looking to create a sustainable livelihood that meshes with family and household obligations, according to Gring-Pemble—students visited businesses that produce honey, chocolate, brown sugar, and coffee, and explored their business models.

They also met with bankers and mayors, and administrators from the Universidad Industrial de Santander, all of whom are helping to finance and advance these initiatives.

“We’re reading about these abstract concepts about social entrepreneurship, using business to create a better world, and it all sounds really wonderful,” says Gring-Pemble. “But when [students] meet a business owner who says I’m willing to pay above what the market sets as a wage because it’s the right thing to do, and I’m making a profit and doing it in a way that’s sustainable, then they take notice.”

“They were able to see the whole picture of what social entrepreneurship is,” says Perilla, who also teaches beekeeping classes at Mason. “It’s one thing to create case studies. It’s another thing if you can go see the complexity of it.”

A personal experience

Germán Perilla

Seeing how beehives have been incorporated into the lives of locals was especially impactful for Fuller, who came to the United States from Cartagena, Colombia, in 2010.

“The trip allowed me to understand the importance of learning about problems and the communities before attempting to generate a solution, which is necessary to create sustainable change,” says Fuller. “That was a key concept throughout the class before going on the trip, and was also very much present through our time in Colombia.”

“Beyond that,” she says, “I have a much deeper appreciation for bees.”

 

This article was adapted from a piece by Damian Cristodero of George Mason University.