Our Job is to Serve Others

Changemakers at USD take a selfie and smile


Education is an adventure, as well as a gift, bringing with it huge responsibility. Over the past decade, many things have changed on the University of San Diego campus. Buildings have been constructed, programs have been established, and students have passed through campus doors. There has, however, been a constant commitment to changemaking.

In 2011, USD was designated as an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus, recognized as an institution of higher education committed to creating a space for exploration, innovation and activation. That same year, the USD Changemaker Hub was established as a campus-wide, collaborative resource to foster change throughout the university. This year marks its 10-year anniversary.

“At USD, changemaking first and foremost is a practice,” says Mike Williams ’92 (BA), JD, PhD, the director of the Changemaker Hub for the past seven years and a professor of political science and international relations. “It’s a set of actions we are encouraging students, faculty and staff to take to address some of the most important urgent challenges in the world and to have a positive impact.”

As an integral part of the fabric of the institution, changemaking is evident in how students, alumni, faculty and staff live out the university’s mission.

“We’re doing the work we’ve been doing since I was a student here,” says Williams, who, as an undergraduate alumnus, majored in political science. “The designation came as a recognition of what we were already doing on- and off-campus.”

It’s this designation that puts USD in an elite group of 51 Changemaker Campuses worldwide, recognized as a university committed to fostering positive change on a global scale.

USD students gather in front of the Kitchens for Good food truck

USD students worked in conjunction with Kitchens for Good, which uses food to transform lives and nourish communities.

What changemaking looks like on an individual basis may be different from person to person, but what sets USD apart from other institutions is the active pursuit of a curriculum that explores positive change both in the classroom and in our communities.

“We believe it starts with self-awareness in understanding your own place in society, your own privilege, your own background and passions. Then it’s about learning,” says Williams. “We want you to learn about the topics you are interested in. It’s about getting involved and having a collective impact with your fellow students, with faculty and with community members to address those issues that matter to you.”

For Juan Carlos “JC” Rivas ’19 (PhD), the associate director of the Changemaker Hub, changemaking is about the small steps taken daily to make a positive difference in our communities.

“It’s a practice, like going to the gym every day,” he says. “You don’t get strong in one day. You actually need to bring in different things with you to practice. When you’re trying to practice changemaking, I always tell people to bring their values, their beliefs, their skills and then work and collaborate with others to actually make a difference in what they care about.”

Rivas, who has been with the Changemaker Hub since its creation in 2011, sees USD’s educational mission as a unique opportunity to foster an interest in changemaking among students.

“Often, I feel like traditional academic settings ask students to wait until they graduate to put into practice everything that they learned in the classroom,” he says. “What we’re trying to do at USD is during your time here, you have the opportunity to engage with the community, to engage with one another and to put a lot of the theories you are learning in the classroom into practice.”

In the decade since the 2011 designation, a lot has been accomplished by the university community. The Changemaker Hub has partnered with campus collaborators on hundreds of projects, working directly with thousands of students and dozens of community partners to bring about change.

Just in the past few years, changemaking efforts have addressed unique challenges facing our communities.

Student-initiated sustainability efforts have led to the pilot reusable container program in the Student Life Pavilion. Faculty research on homelessness and food insecurity has led to the establishment of the Urgent Challenges Collective. Collaborations with community partners have helped bring COVID-19 vaccinations to underrepresented communities.

In the past 10 years, programs have also been established to address changemaking in USD’s curriculum. In Fall 2016, USD’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies launched the Master of Arts in Social Innovation (MASI) program, aimed at providing students with a deeper understanding of societal challenges and equipping them with the tools to develop innovative solutions. In Fall 2017, the College of Arts and Science launched a minor in changemaking, geared towards undergraduate students interested in social change through community engagement.

The nationwide event, My Story — which was founded on the USD campus in 2014 — continues to bring the university community together for nights of empathy and storytelling. The 2020 Changemaker Challenge encouraged students to use their imagination to generate ideas to address homelessness in the San Diego/Tijuana region. The year-long Changemaker Faculty Fellows Development Program establishes interdisciplinary faculty groups to address team building, changemaking and social innovation in the classroom.

The past decade has also shown how changemaking has continued beyond USD’s borders. Immersion trips to Uganda, South Africa and Jamaica have broadened student awareness of global issues related to clean water, education and development, and the impact the colonial system has had on communities around the world. USD has also been involved in cross-border collaborations that address peacebuilding, justice system reforms and immigration.

“What we’ve accomplished over the past 10 years has been pretty remarkable,” admits Williams.

That said, it’s clear that there are no plans to slow down on any of these initiatives. “In my opinion, every student going to any university should not just learn and not just think about issues. They also need to be active,” says Williams. “As a Changemaker Campus, we need to walk that talk and it’s important because it’s showing students that we believe their educational experience is directly aligned with our mission — our liberal arts mission, our Catholic mission and our changemaking mission.”

USD student wearing face mask holds up professional attire she is selecting from the Torero Closet

Students like Vicenta Martinez Govea ’21 can select professional business attire at the Torero Closet for job interviews.

“One of the reasons I wanted to work at USD was I’ve always enjoyed seeing these aha moments in the journey of growth students experience,” says Rivas. “For me, getting to watch that from the first year to when they become seniors, seeing them evolve and learn and dive into whatever their passions might be, that’s what I love about the changemaking journey — that every student goes through it and no journey is ever the same.”

Each year, the university is greeted with a new cohort of incoming students, motivated by the Changemaker mission to pursue their educational path here at USD. This mission is so intricately connected to a student’s experience that prospective applicants are asked to provide their own views on changemaking, already beginning to contemplate their own aha moments.

“I have always felt that progress lies within helping those in need, and I believe students are some of the most motivated participants in furthering this progression,” wrote one 2021 applicant.

For another prospective student, being part of the Changemaker community is essential to solving societal issues. “I wanted to become a part of the path toward solving these issues so everyone can look forward to a better future. I would take this opportunity in a heartbeat, because it’s important for me to be aware of the imperfections of the world to gain and understand our personal values and find our place in the world.”

At the heart of changemaking is USD’s mission rooted in Catholic Social Thought. “My goal as a Changemaker would be to improve the lives of others by focusing on the greater good,” wrote another applicant. “As Catholics, our job is to serve others just as Jesus did. Jesus found ways to feed the hungry and lead more Christians to help and follow Him. Today, as social entrepreneurs, we can start businesses and movements that benefit our brothers and sisters, not just ourselves. After all, that is what Catholicism is based on.”

For Rivas, these prospective students exhibit the curiosity and motivation that inspire him in the work he does.

“We all enter changemaking at different times in our lives,” he says. For him, success is seen in the daily application of these practices. “They’re learning the patience that it will take for them to make change in any particular setting. They are learning what it takes to collaborate with someone else. They are getting to experience what collective impact looks like. To me, success is in the process.”

As USD celebrates the 10-year anniversary of its designation as a Changemaker Campus, both Williams and Rivas are reflecting on all that has been accomplished. Each is grateful for the opportunities presented to them over the past decade.

For Rivas, his motivation from day one has been the students he’s been fortunate enough to work with. “We are a Changemaker Campus because the students make it so,” he says. “What makes us a Changemaker Campus is that we, as an institution, continue to practice every day to become a better institution for everybody and an institution that provides opportunity and equity as well as inclusivity for all of us.”

“It’s making me a better citizen,” admits Williams, who couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago he’d be so closely connected with the Changemaker Hub and the changemaking mission of the university. It’s been a rewarding experience and one he wouldn’t change for anything.

And as he looks ahead to what the future holds, Williams is motivated by a desire to continue to bring about change in our communities.

“A decade from now, I would like the community members of San Diego, when they hear about USD, or when they come drive up the hill to us, to know we’re an institution that is willing to collaborate with anyone in the community on urgent challenges,” he says. “That we’re willing to devote our resources, our time and our skills to that. That we are a place that is dedicated to not just learning, but to taking positive action in the community. And that we are the kind of place you can come to for collaborations that make a difference.” — Allyson Meyer ’16 (BA), ’21 (MBA)

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