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09 June 2023

United States of America

George Mason University

George Mason University

Introduction and Institutional Background

Mason is a large public institution (40,000 students) in Northern Virginia with a diverse student body (over 60% identify as something other than white Americans) and a commitment to inclusive excellence and pursuing a more just, prosperous, and sustainable world.

The PRME principles are important to Mason as our former president, Ángel Cabrera, participated in drafting them, and we aspire to follow them as evidenced by both our school's vision and mission. At the university-level, tackling the world’s grand challenges is a pillar of our strategic plan, and we have an Institute for a Sustainable Earth pursuing the SDGs. We also have the Business for a Better World Center (B4BW) whose vision is that business will be a force for good in the world, leading the charge to address the world's complex challenges. The co-Executive Directors of B4BW have led the school's efforts with PRME but the center has over 50 affiliate faculty who are also engaged in the work. The B4BW leadership includes two faculty co-Executive Directors, an Executive-in-Residence, an Associate Director, two Program Managers, and co-Academic Directors of the Impact Fellows program.

The Action

Impact Fellows (IF) is a signature two-year, cohort-based learning community for first-time students from groups typically underrepresented in business (e.g., low-income, first-generation, non-white, LGBTQIA+, disabled) that is housed in the Business for a Better World Center. IF is focused on business and social impact anchored in the SDGs. The Impact Fellows program is a first-year experience where undergraduate students share common intellectual experiences in a learning community, complete collaborative assignments and projects, undertake research, engage in diversity and global learning as well as service and community-based learning, participate in an internship, and complete a project-based capstone course.

In their first year, students take two courses together - Business and Society and Global Environment of Business in sheltered sections taught by one of the program's academic directors thereby building community between the students and the faculty member. Students also engage in co-curricular activities including a multi-day orientation, engagement with purpose-driven businesses and organizations, and other activities designed to expose them to the SDGs and to develop the skills and knowledge to tackle them. Impact Fellows engage directly with guest speakers like the former CEO of the UN Foundation and leading human rights activists. Building on their coursework and co-curricular activities, Impact Fellows identify a set of goals about which they are passionate. Impact Fellows first-year experience culminates with a summer impact residency. During this residency, students travel to see how the SGDs are being addressed in a context different from what they have seen in Mason’s local community. They participate in service and community-engaged learning working side-by side with organizations in the field.

Year two of the program continues with a focus on common intellectual experiences, collaborative projects, research, community-based learning, internships, and capstone projects. The Impact Fellows take a two-course sequence, Tackling Wicked Problems I and II, designed to build skills and competencies for innovation that apply to both social and business challenges. In the first course, students are exposed to approaches to identifying needs, ideating solutions, and leading change. In this course, students engage with marginalized communities to learn more about the challenges they face and identify the SDG they wish to address in the second course. In their final semester in the program, students work in project teams organized around an SDG with a community partner to put those approaches into action in a capstone team project. Student teams work directly with a community and a community-based partner in a deep community-engaged learning opportunity that will result in the delivery of a needs assessment, proposed opportunities developed in collaboration with community members, and a change management strategy. Year two of the Impact Fellows program culminates with an internship in a purpose-driven business or organization.

The Outcome and Impact

Feedback from students in the program has been overwhelmingly positive. One student was inspired by her engagement with Impact Fellows to start an NGO that provides essential supplies to girls in Bangladeshi orphanages. She explains:

"The Impact Fellows Program really inspired me to give back to (my) community…. The usage of sanitary napkins is as low as 15% in Bangladesh and that is a very alarming rate. Hence, I decided to sponsor sanitary napkins to 50 girls on a monthly basis starting from November 2020. This is only an initial step, and I intend to raise awareness about this crucial topic on a large scale gradually. I am also donating other essential commodities like clothes, bedsheets, stationaries, dry food and toys. ... I got this motivation by participating in the Impact Fellows Program and I am very delighted to be a part of it. Thank you for your support and guidance!"

Others have reflected on how the program has expanded their horizons and perspectives by engaging them in deep learning with a diverse group. One Impact Fellow from a low-income, rural background expressed the value of this broadening to him:

"I think success through this program can be measured in knowledge. . . . Being in this program I feel like I am surrounded by the cream of the crop of my class. ... and I really feel like what I am gaining from this is (pause) I’m hearing experiences from people that are all across the world. Like I get to hear examples from . . . somebody from Bangladesh when I’m just a small-town boy from southwest VA. I think it’s very special."

Through the Impact Fellows Program, students from diverse backgrounds come together to explore and celebrate their differences but, even more, to see how they can leverage their diversity to drive change. The first cohort to graduate from the program started a new student group, "Be the Change", to continue working together to address the SDGs and to bring more students into the work. Many of these students also mentor the Impact Fellows coming up behind them.

Lesson Learned: issues / challenges when introducing the innovation, and how to resolve them

First-year students can be hard to manage but are incredibly satisfying to work with as you see them develop in skills and confidence. Establishing the goals of the program and the expectations with the students is important. Similarly, finding outside financial support is important. As the program including co-curricular activities can be time-consuming, we have lost some students who need to work to pay for school. With more money for scholarships, we could potentially retain more students. Some students will also leave the program because they transfer out of the school of business or the university. We also lose a few each year who decide to put their energies into other activities. As students commit to IF before they even arrive on campus, we are accepting of some natural attrition but end up with really motivated students who stay.

Resources in Need to Adopt or Adapt this Approach

We started by having the co-Executive Directors of Business for a Better World running the program. This quickly was identified as an impossible task, and, after the first term, we hired faculty directors for the group. We constantly seek co-curricular activities and community partners to provide experiential learning opportunities and mentoring. We also have developed philanthropic support as exemplified by the naming of the first-year experience as the Sally and Albert Kaider Impact Fellows First-Year Experience and foundation funding of internships for students that is currently in process.

Nest Steps

Our goal is to expand the program by opening to non-business students and allowing students to enter after entering the university. After we build additional financial support, we hope to take students on international residencies.


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