October 16, 2020 – By Matt Fortier

Traditional models in higher education, centered on classroom learning, lectures, and  textbooks, have fallen short of preparing the next generation of leaders. Fortunately, innovators from within and outside the institution of higher education have developed compelling models, centered on applied and experience-based education, to prepare students to have a positive impact in society. Through “gap years,” experience-based semesters, and problem-based courses, students are developing self-awareness, learning how to work with communities, and gaining a nuanced understanding of how to tackle the complex challenges of our time. 

Experiential learning is not new – educators have long-recognized the value of providing students with opportunities to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world problems. These immersive experiences enable students to get their hands dirty while pushing them out of their comfort zone, where they learn both from “failure” and “success”. As COVID-19 has forced students out of the classroom, we can seize the moment to take a closer look at these experiential learning models and how they help form the types of leaders our world needs.

This is the conversation we hosted in the third installment of our Ideas That Transform (ITT) Series, as we examined the question What if Colleges Designed Impact-Oriented Bridge Years. We dug into the transformative potential of bridge years and other experiential learning programs, while seeking to understand both the challenges and opportunities of integrating this model within the institution of higher education.  

Watch the entire conversation now.

Going Beyond the Comfort Zone 

After completing high school, Jamie Cohen made the difficult decision to go against the grain, overcoming pressure from peers, parents, and society by deferring her acceptance to George Washington University and enrolling in Global Citizen Year’s bridge year program. She worked in Ecuador for a year, learning Spanish and Quechua from her host family, while apprenticing at a fair-trade jewelry company focused on elevating indigineous women in the community through access to jobs and healthcare. 

Living in a host community and not speaking English for weeks on end, she developed “grit, adaptability, and cross-cultural communication skills,” giving her a better understanding of self and of how to best take advantage of the education offered to her at GW. She had transformed into an agent of her own journey, equipped with self-awareness and purpose, ready to navigate her undergraduate experience with a level of intentionality unmatched by her peers. 

In 2016, Jamie was among the 1-2% of students to break from the high school to college pipeline, avoiding the fate of excellent sheep by undertaking a bridge year program. Due to the impacts of COVID-19, schools like Harvard are seeing a 20% deferral rate, and nationally, first-year enrollment is down 16.1%.we’re seeing a huge increase in that number. This is a tremendous opportunity – what students do after they defer will have a formative impact on their personal and professional journey. As educators, we need to go beyond the classroom to meet students where they are and to ensure that the time “off” is not time lost rather, a positive and pivotal moment in their education.  

In founding Global Citizen Year, Abby Falik has worked for more than a decade to intentionally design a year-long experiential learning program between high school and college to do just that. She helped rebrand the term “gap year” – a metaphor implying you’re falling into a hole you may never escape into a “bridge year” that offers a safe passage to your destination. By designing a year-long experience between high school and college that is more than simply backpacking across Europe, Global Citizen Year created a deliberate transition that draws on the theory of the aptly named William Bridges. He notes the difference between the type of change that happens to you, and the type of change that puts the student in the driver’s seat, empowering them as agents of their own journey. 

Abby’s goal is to encourage young people in their curiosity and to help them build the courage to follow their convictions. She wants them to figure out who they are when they’re out of their comfort zones, to discover what it means to be human in the world, and how they can use their higher education to further their interests and goals. Her mission has increasingly resonated with educators who recognize the value of these experiences, though our conversation also highlighted some of the key challenges. 

Challenges to Colleges & Universities

When Jamie started at GW after her bridge year experience, she encountered a disconnect. She did not receive credit towards her graduation requirements, making her feel that her experience was not valued by GW. She also found it difficult to connect with her fellow first-years who came straight from high school. During our conversation, she suggested that in the future, GW could formally partner with or directly offer bridge year programs, provide programs to integrate students as they matriculate, and offer credit for the experience so that students could better afford these opportunities, highlighting the important topic of equity and access.

While there is widespread agreement among educators regarding the transformative impact of bridge years and other forms of experiential learning, changing established models within the institution of higher education is very difficult. Randy Bass, Vice President for Georgetown University’s Strategic Education Initiatives, spoke to the root challenge of implementing these innovations in institutions of higher education. He noted how “Universities like Georgetown are very invested in a very particular model. You’re either here, or you’re not. You’re either in traditional classes, or you’re not. You’re either immersed in this community, or you’re not. You’re either around people who will become your mentors, or you’re somewhere else.” The “COVID disruption” however, has changed that.

Georgetown’s Randy Bass discusses the new situation universities find themselves in.

“We have jumped the binary.”

“That you can be here and be elsewhere is newly imaginable,” Bass continued. In the wake of the pandemic,  students login to their class from anywhere in the world, or take a break from class all-together, choosing either a formal bridge year program or an independently driven experience. In fact, he noted that innovating our approach to education is no longer a luxury for some to consider but rather, a matter of survival for many universities, as enrollment numbers wane and students around the world question the value proposition and price tag of a traditional university education.

Randy summarized the idea aptly, asking 

“How do we meet the moment – this moment that is characterized by a sense of trauma for large numbers of people in our world, deep, polarization – a growing gulf of people trying to talk to each other but who don’t see eye to eye. There is a looming question: what is the role of higher education in helping to develop the next generation to be part of the world that increasingly feels disintegrative rather than integrative? How can higher education help students figure out how to be human in the world?”

Bass talks about the goal of higher education to do more than just educate.

While Georgetown does not have its own bridge year program or partnership, it recently launched the Capitol Applied Learning Lab (CALL), which provides a semester-based off-campus opportunity in DC, enabling students to center their semester on an internship, rather than their classes, and then wrapping the coursework around that experience. He referenced other burgeoning programs, from summer global immersions, social justice immersions, and alternative break programs, which enable students to “step outside the bubble of the Hilltop and meet the world.” He also shared pragmatic opportunities for the integration of applied learning to more traditional sources, such as “field work, community-based work, and client-based work, all of which can be incorporated into the formal curriculum.” 

“If you’re a parent, don’t let your kids schooling interfere with their education,” advised Abby, quoting Mark Twain as she noted that high school is increasingly a high stakes game to get into college, with diminishing room for risk-taking, failure, and authentic experimentation. 

Abby Falik from Global Citizen Year speaks directly to students and parents.

She spoke to the institutional partnerships that Global Citizen Year has successfully made, where universities like Tufts directly offer admitted students the opportunity to defer and undertake a bridge year program, with varying forms of tuition and credit integration to make the opportunity accessible to students of all financial means. These partnerships also enable students like Jamie to “find their people,” through programming that integrates students as they arrive on campus.

Seizing the Opportunity Ahead

To be clear, these innovations were underway and necessary well before the impacts of COVID-19. But amidst an incredibly difficult year that continues to test us, there are a few silver linings. In the “before times,” mainstream institutions of higher education shied away from innovations for the very reasons Randy underscored – they were heavily invested in a particular model and it was working, at least well enough. The model is no longer working, and COVID-19 has made that abundantly clear. 

Moreover, the pandemic has made clear that the landscape of education is shifting and that forward thinking organizations like Global Citizen Year, pioneered by inspired thought leaders like Abby, will deservedly gain an increasing foothold in the higher education space to form students like Jamie, equipping them with the mindsets and skills necessary to tackle the big hairy problems of our time. At the Beeck Center, we’ll continue to work both inside and outside the institution of higher education to catalyze these critical innovations and improvements while developing new models that anticipate and address the needs of the future. 

Interested in how you can drive impact in your communities, check out our Project Builder.

Interested in how you can work directly on Beeck Center projects while developing your skills as a future leader for social impact leadership? Check out our Student Analyst Program.

Stay connected with the Beeck Center for future opportunities through our Social Impact Opportunities Newsletter.

Interested in more events like this? Stay up-to-date on the latest from our Ideas That Transform Series.


Shannon Blevins has often been recruited for positions outside Southwest Virginia, where she grew up and is rearing her own family. Blevins, the Associate Vice Chancellor, Economic Development & Engagement at UVA Wise, has always said no. She researches the other offers, but “I can never check the box of the heart,” she says.

Instead, she is turning UVA Wise, a small rural institution with about 2,000 students, into a nationally recognized economic development actor (last year, Forbes and Sorensen Impact Center recognized one of its projects for enabling opportunity fund investments.) In an interview, she listed some of the rules she lives by to collaborate with many stakeholders and government agencies active in the central region of Appalachia. Some initiatives can move slowly, and many of the players stay the same. UVA Wise works across states, through Virginia’s higher education system and with regional and private sector actors.

You can learn more about her work in our profile, UVA Wise and Entrepreneurship in Appalachian Virginia, but here are some other words of wisdom she passes on to both students and members of the community.

cover of report showing students walking across campus
Read the Profile
  • A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet.’
  • Don’t hold grudges. Even if someone is late to engage with you on a project, make room for them at the table.
  • If you get something started, but there’s a partner that’s better suited, step aside.
  • You have to continuously remind yourself, you can’t be married to your programs.
  • Don’t have all the answers. Somebody in the room, other than you, has the answer.
  • Be intentional about developing the norms of the group, and “don’t ostracize folks that are territorial.”
  • Don’t get above your raising. No one group could do those projects on their own. It is messy work. It is messy, messy work, and it can be emotionally draining.

Stillman College, the historically Black college founded in 1870, has an ambassador extraordinaire: its choir, which tours across the country and often brings its audiences to tears. Its performances have changed lives.

Bob Herrema still remembers a performance of the Messiah in 1969, when he and a fellow church member organized a combined performance, with the Stillman Choir and string students from the University of Alabama. Before Herrema raised his baton, he turned to look at the audience – and saw Stillman’s Brown Chapel filled with faces of all colors. Before the performance was over, some would be in tears.

Stillman College choir in robes sing onstage
The Stillman College choir performs. Credit: Stillman College

“Stillman turned out to have an impact for the rest of my life,” he says. Herrema, who is white, had arrived at the school to take the job knowing how good the music of the Black tradition was. He left knowing how easily people could connect across race through music, and how much they would be moved by the connection. For the rest of his long career as a professor and a chorus leader, most of it in Pennsylvania, he incorporated composers like Moses Hogan in the repertoire.

The choir’s power has resonated many times over the years for others, says Jocqueline Richardson, an alumna and the choir’s director. “When we sang Somebody’s Praying – when we sang that in St. Charles, a church that was in Hurricane Katrina, you understand, the members were crying.”

There are about 40 choir members; a more select group tours each year. Richardson ticks off other performances that were meaningful, including one in the church where former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is a member. The choir’s tour of churches near San Francisco included performances of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, O Freedom, and I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, among others.

The repertoire, she believes, is key. It consists of, among many others, Handel’s Messiah and Ernani Aguiar’s Salmo 150, and spirituals arranged by William Dawson and Moses Hogan. The choir has the diction, talent and passion to move across the traditions and give each one equal weight.

Charlie Mitchell, a student in the 1970s, went on to get a PhD in music and became a music leader, now in Louisville, Kentucky. Herrema remembers him as a tall, lanky young man, with his sleeves too short. “I found him at the piano one day, saying “This is the music I want to play,” remembers Herrema, who introduced the choir to such hymns as Give Ear To My Word – a phrase Mitchell remembers to this day as foreign to his.

Watch the Stillman Choir perform at Westminster Presbyterian Church – Birmingham, Ala., February 3, 2019

Today, Mitchell, who is an organist, plays Bach in the same performances as Ulysses Kaye. At a performance in southern Indiana, he focused on the work of composers from the African diaspora, such as Ulysses Kaye, Florence Price and Fela Sowanda. A nationally known organist came up to him afterwards, and somewhat stiffly, but warmly, said the concert had been “well received.”

“I figured I’d arrived then,” says Mitchell with a laugh. “I grew up on a farm in rural Alabama. My people were farmers. The choir at Stillman and the touring we did … singing in those churches, listening to the organ, showed me what you could do with music.”

Learn more about Stillman College, and how it’s working with investment and development firms to use real estate assets to generate revenue, catalyze economic development in underserved areas, and provide workforce training for their student populations in Part 2 of our Impact in Action series, Untapped Assets: Stillman College And The Landscape Of HBCUs.

September 9, 2020– By Elizabeth MacBride

Rowan University was an early leader in online learning. In 2010, the second-tier state school in New Jersey launched a division that now enrolls 12,000 students annually. Over the past 10 years, online learning has generated more than $128 million for the university by serving both adults returning to college and younger students with more than 55 course offerings in fields such as education, health administration, business, criminal justice and public relations.

headshot of Jeff Hand
Jeff Hand, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs, Rowan University (Photo courtesy Rowan Univ.)

We sat down with Jeff Hand, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs, to ask him for his thoughts about how online learning is likely to evolve as the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout continue.

Hand said once a higher-education institution goes online, it’s instantly up against every other online learning company or institution. As people retool for new and different jobs that may emerge after the pandemic, he said, the market is likely to change considerably. That shift to market responsiveness can be difficult for a higher education institution, he said — but Rowan is used to it. “We’re looking to morph along with those changes,” he said.

What has been the key to Rowan’s success so far?

We were founded as a teaching school. Pedagogy and curriculum is important in everything we do. As we had to move students online this spring, we had our quality standards already in place.

You’ve said one of the drivers for Rowan to start online learning was to keep costs low for non-traditional students. How low are they?

They’re about $460 per credit hour. We took out the fees that on-campus students pay for things like the Student Union and facilities fees. (Online students are allowed to use the Student Union, but they’re not charged). It’s about two-thirds the cost of in-state, on-campus tuition by credit hour.

How many New Jersey vs. out-of-state students are there online?

On campus, about 96% of our students are from New Jersey. Online, it’s 80%. You see, you’re competing with everyone. You have to be really good.

Given the financial pressures on students, families and the university itself are likely to face next year, will the pricing change?

We have committed to keeping tuition the same. We’re looking to expand student aid, to make it available to online students. We are also in discussions with financial technology companies, to offer students a way to finance their education by agreeing to pay back the cost of tuition after they start working.

Rowan would essentially extend them credit while they’re taking classes, and get paid later?


modern school building on Rowan University campus

September 3, 2020 – By Elizabeth MacBride

At the South Jersey Technology Park, a garden plot is being grown with some of the tastiest (and hottest) varieties of peppers, from long hots and beaver dams to ghost peppers and the scorpion butch.

The plot is tended by students at nearby Rowan University, which helped develop the Tech Park, and by Ali Houshmand, president of Rowan. Houshmand has been growing peppers and making his own special recipe of hot sauce for years. After the sauce became popular among family and friends, Houshmand decided to create a bottled version to sell as a fundraising tool for student scholarships. Asked by the university’s marketers to describe how it tastes, Houshmand said, “It’s nasty hot.”

The entrepreneurial venture, Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce, makes three varieties: Ali’s Nasty, Nastylicious and Nastyvicious.

bottles of hot sauce with flames behind them
Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauces

Houshmand collaborated with the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton to get the hot sauces to market. They’re sold through the university’s website, for $10 a jar, along with swag like t-shirts and pint glasses.

case study cover of Rowan University: A Blue-Collar Soul

The company has earned over $130,000 in revenue that has been used for emergency scholarships for students at Rowan University who experience an unexpected financial crisis or need. With other donations, the scholarship fund has disbursed more than $3 million in assistance since its founding in 2016.

More than 65% of all Rowan undergraduates receive need-based financial aid.

“I grew up in a poor family with nine brothers and sisters. My mother and father couldn’t read,” said Houshmand in an interview, who immigrated to England from Iran just before he went to college at the University of Essex. “I’ve been through a tough time.”

Houshmand said he is committed to giving students from working class families a first-rate education at Rowan. “Give me the kid from Camden with a single mother, the one whose roof leaks when it rains. The real honor and the real accomplishment is serving that kid,” he said.

The Technology Park is also home to a technology business incubator designed to support a broad range of startups, including those led by Rowan students. Most recently, two Rowan grads set up a company which designed a new kind of reusable flexible drinking straw. In the next few years, as the economy emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, entrepreneurship – both startups and an entrepreneurial mindset at institutions – will be crucial to recovery. Rowan has already frozen its tuition for next year and is seeking ways to reduce costs further for students. “We have to recognize that a lot of our families have gone through serious financial issues,” Houshmand said. “So how can I make this easier? Increase the need-based scholarships.”

One pepper at a time.

As COVID-19 moves through the United States, our divisions are cast into stark relief. We are separated by politics, geography, race and class. Against this backdrop, higher-education institutions can be their communities’ strongest anchors, keeping people moored to a space – physical or virtual – in which they interact and find what they share, instead of what divides them.

Next week, we launch “Impact In Action: Profiles of Higher Education,” a series exploring how three innovative higher-education institutions, Rowan University, Stillman College and University of Virginia-Wise, help produce impact-centered economic development in low-income and overlooked communities. “Everything boils down to resources,” Ali Houshmand, the president of Rowan University, told us. “Our first instinct is survival. Once we survive, we want to do better. How do we turn an institution that was reactive into one that is moving forward?”

“That, to me, is fundamental.”

These three profiles,

contain ideas and context for impact investors looking for trusted partners and high-leverage opportunities in the current fraught environment. They also offer higher education decision-makers insight into their peers’ actions to support low-income and overlooked communities while establishing new partnerships that help maintain institutions’ financial bottom lines. Collectively these post-pandemic stories underscore the three lessons featured in our Assets For Impact Insights Report.

“A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet.’”  

“A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet,’” said Shannon Blevins, Associate Vice Chancellor, Economic Development & Engagement at UVA-Wise. “Even if someone is late to engage with you on a project, make room for them at the table.”

This project began before the pandemic and, obviously, ended in a different place because of it. We set out early in the year to look at the role of higher-education institutions working in an area that has been a media lightning rod: Opportunity Zone development. Tax breaks passed in 2016, under the Trump Administration, have been used by wealthy developers to create projects that likely could have been financed in the private markets.

Yet, a deeper narrative has evolved in Opportunity Zones – one that is missed in the politicized media. Some communities are turning the legislation to its overt purpose to propel development in low-income communities. In many cases, higher education institutions are at the center of those positive developments. We are, for instance, seeing OZ projects evolve slowly, with the help of higher education institutions, in Baltimore, Kannapolis, North Carolina and Merced, California, as well as the highlands of Appalachia, the West Side of Tuscaloosa, Alabama and in Glassboro, New Jersey. The latter three are covered in this series of profiles, produced as a collaboration between Lumina Foundation and the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, with research and writing by Times of Entrepreneurship.

The Beeck Center was a leader in establishing the Guiding Principles and Reporting Framework for Opportunity Zones. These guiding principles include: community engagement, equity, transparency, measurement, and outcomes. Successfully investing requires careful attention to existing community assets, needs and priorities. Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available for all. Times of Entrepreneurship explores the way deep innovation can propel communities and individuals.  For all involved, a clear approach guided by a shared set of principles and implemented through a common and flexible framework is critical. 

At the Beeck Center our goal is to capitalize on the investment and work to-date to catalyze non-traditional partnerships within our network of influential investors, community intermediaries, government officials and foundations to help scale efforts and develop guiding principles, tactics and resources to empower businesses and organizations to align their assets to respond to the immediate community needs as well as to ensure an equitable economic recovery and sustained community investment post COVID-19.

As the pandemic evolved, we felt responsible to look deeper into higher education institutions’ role as anchors in low-income communities. The pandemic and the economic recession are devastating the most vulnerable people. Institutions cannot afford to put their own futures at risk. The role they play in those selfsame communities is too important.

Thus, the focus of our profiles became how these three leading institutions innovate to find paths forward that benefit the low-income communities that rely on them. These profiles are not about trade-offs. They’re about long-term strategy even in the face of short-term pressure. The long-term strategies usually rely on partnerships that benefit low-income communities and strengthen the institutions. The institutions’ well-being is tied deeply, then, to the health of low-income communities that are part of its world.

As Cynthia Warrick, the president of Stillman College, told us: “it’s hard to turn your back on poor children.” 

These institutions didn’t – and find themselves stronger because of those decisions.