A course with an impact; this is what happens when students say 'I DO'

It takes only a few motivated students to make a change in education, and to induce a positive societal impact by extension. This is proven by project I DO, an exciting new course within Rotterdam School of Management. As a proud partner, Impact at the Core introduces three of its founders. “So much power is possessed by universities. It is about time that we take it and do something great.”

From Guinea to Rotterdam

If we’re going to talk about I DO, we cannot get around Students for Project Misside. The story starts in Guinea, where RSM-student Lennart Corleissen was volunteering for the local community of Télimélé, in a project supported by the company where he had done his internship. “You drive through the cities and see people living and sleeping in the dirt, children not even having access to basic healthcare. It really hit me when I saw a mother who’d been driving for hours to get a malaria treatment for her kid, only to turn around because she couldn’t afford to pay two euros. We can’t live in a world where some people spend two euros without giving it a second thought, while elsewhere kids die from malaria disease. When I saw what Project Misside did; not only providing medical aid, but working on long term change through education, I felt compelled to work with them.”

Students for Project Misside was born: nineteen RSM-students working on improving the medical vocational school in Télimélé, and raising awareness concerning Guinean health care infrastructure. A socio-cultural sense of responsibility seems an eminent factor in student participation. Mark Alaton - responsible for external relations - sets the tone by quoting Bill Gates: “From to whom much is given, much is expected.” Before taking part in ‘Misside’ he was involved with several community service initiatives throughout high school. For Sahand Fescharakifard, head of human resources, the passions for this project stems from his cultural background: “My dad was a refugee from Iran. The country is in a bad state right now, economically speaking. Most of my family still lives there, and whenever we speak on the phone, I can sense their eagerness to be in Europe as well. I didn’t come from the high-income regions, so I could always see the differences in income and social standing, and what that does to people.”

Having an impact in the now

Shortly after starting with ‘Misside’, the group realized that a lot of peers were interested in societal topics as well. Lennart: “They wanted to do something, but they were missing an opportunity.” Mark explains how, in the beginning, their ambitions stumbled upon a disbalance between the social drive to make a change, and the fixed nature of the academic institution. “We wanted to solve every single problem in the world, but there was a slight lack of commitment to our vision within the educational system; there wasn’t anything solid or concrete in the curriculum.” With I DO, they hope to add an element of practical application to the otherwise very theory-loaded education. According to the initiators, students often feel overwhelmed by the feeling that they must enter a job with all according duties and responsibilities, after ‘only’ being a student with hardly any practical experience.

Those familiar with RSM will easily recognize where I DO finds it roots. The faculty encourages students to reflect upon their ambitions by inviting them to make an I WILL statement about the future they want to see for the world. It was Sahand who came up with the name: “I saw all these pictures of students with inspiring quotes. They wanted to act but were lacking the opportunity to put their goals into practise. With I DO, we don’t want to take away from the I WILL statement, but rather extend it and show that you can have a positive impact in this very moment.”  

Course development as a lesson in itself

I DO hopes to create a learning environment where students can apply their knowledge in real-world cases. In their collaboration with small societal organizations, they can develop soft skills in the full learning cycle: problem definition, project work and delivery of a specific product. This way, they can have a tangible, visible impact. With the support of Impact at the Core, the I DO project aims to establish itself as a course in line with RSM’s mission to be a force of positive change. Lennart: “A team of learning innovators helped us improve our workshops, and we learned how to set up our own Canvas course. At first, I was a little skeptical about being helped by people who don’t know the participants personally, but it was an open and supportive environment. We have more sessions coming up, and we are looking forward to combining our findings with their expertise about, for instance, learning goals.”

Either way, for these students, the development of I DO as a university course is a lesson in itself. Sahand: “It was way more complicated that we all thought it would be. There are so many things that you have to keep in mind that we didn’t know about. Here, I learned a lot about communication with others: conducting interviews, recognizing the characteristics of a strong participant or leader. Those are things I couldn’t have learned in the initial study programme.” Moreover, as Mark mentions, there is certain language barrier between students en external stakeholders that any professional has to learn to overcome. “And when I say language, I don’t mean German or English. You just cannot communicate with an NGO in the same way you would with RSM, because everyone has different interests and different cultural backgrounds. You need to learn to grasp how you should formulate your point in such situations.”

Moving forward

For now, the I DO project counts six teams, working with a range of NGO’s located in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe among others. Each team consists of three or four students, all making an impact somewhere in the world by applying what they have learned at RSM. Sahand is coaching a team of three, working on an inclusive environment for disabled children in Sri Lanka. “We are at the start of the action-phase now; we are finally going to do something! We will face challenges in the coming months, but those will make the process worth more. The students are super motivated, they are connected by the fact that they are doing this voluntarily and that trust was placed in us as a team.”  

Lennart: “There will always be a strong bond with this project and with the university. We are all in a marriage, having this baby together.” As is passionately expressed by all three, the I DO team consists of more than just these three. “For us, it is really important that all other team members are mentioned in this article, since it has always been a team effort.” Well, a promise is a promise: Vincent Jahn, Malte Gocha, Sherwin Husseinifard and Artus Assman have all contributed to this project in their own ways and deserve to find their names right here.

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