Driving Change: Students Make Sustainable Connections through Partnerships with BMW, the UN, and Others

By on  for Fordham Magazine.

Thanks to a new series of yearlong social innovation workshops, Fordham students are making connections at organizations like BMW, the United Nations, and elsewhere in an effort to find sustainable solutions to energy, health, and food crises—locally and around the globe.

The Fordham network of students, faculty, alumni, and community members promoting innovative solutions to these challenges is called the Social Innovation Collaboratory. This group has already sponsored workshops on three different themes, with more being planned. Each workshop allows students to apply their academic knowledge and passion for creating social value to solving a specific problem.

Members of the Clean Cookstoves workshop partner with the United Nations’ Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves in an effort to reduce the economic, climate, and health risks of inefficient stoves and dangerous cooking methods used in many countries around the world. The Food and Enterprise students collaborate with Slow Money NYC to examine how to evaluate and rate local sustainable food and farm initiatives. And the Urban Mobility team focuses on enhancing BMW’s new electric vehicles to expand sustainable transportation options for college students and New Yorkers.

Students from all backgrounds have joined the three workshops—from freshmen to graduate students, business majors to psychology majors, native New Yorkers to international students.

Brendan Dagher, a Fordham College at Rose Hill senior, helped design all three of the workshops. He says the diversity is one of their greatest strengths. “It encourages the kind of integrated thinking that creates novel solutions to deep-rooted problems.”

Though some students have no previous experience in the area of sustainability, others, like freshman Olivia Greenspan, participated in local sustainability projects while still in high school. At Fordham, Greenspan is an active executive board member of St. Rose’s Garden, the Rose Hill campus’s community garden. In her first semester, she proposed using a method of hydroponics (growing plants without soil) that is already being implemented by the group.

And she’s expanding her sustainability focus from food to transportation by joining the Urban Mobility workshop. “Every time I get more involved with sustainability I just see more and more value in it, and I see how feasible it is with the technology we have,” she says. “I feel like if I don’t contribute, it just might not happen. And when I’m doing it, I feel like I’m part of a larger movement.”

Carey Weiss, Fordham’s director of sustainability initiatives and social innovation, leads all three workshops. She says that one of the best things about these projects is how students in each of the workshops divide into small teams where everyone is an equal partner. They brainstorm together, and they’re all encouraged to share their unique perspective. Graduate students learn from freshmen, English students learn from biology students, and so on.

Weiss says that this format allows the workshops to “draw on the students’ individual passions, and they bring their whole selves to the table.”

This model not only gives students an inside glance at leading organizations, it expands students’ opportunities for valuable networking. And, according to Weiss, it promotes new and innovative ways of thinking.

“It’s action-oriented, and it’s impact-oriented,” she says, “and it stems from the Jesuit idea of being men and women for others.”

This spring, Greenspan and the other Urban Mobility students will pitch their finalized concepts to the team at BMW, and the company will choose which ideas to implement.

Greenspan says that working with the team has been an enriching experience, both academically and personally.

She has also received several summer internship offers because of her involvement with the workshop. “I’m not just making connections between what I learn in my classes and sustainable solutions,” she says. “I also have constant access to these amazing companies and internship opportunities.

“And I have a real sense of what it’s like to work on a productive, kind, and caring team.”